City seeks to park more cars on tax rolls
STAMFORD — Investigators soon may be traversing the streets with cameras and license-plate readers, gathering information that can be checked against databases to determine where cars “live.”
Officials want to identify residents who avoid the city’s motor vehicle tax by registering their cars elsewhere.
They estimate the city loses $1 million a year because people move to Stamford and fail to register their cars here, or register them in places that charge less in taxes, or none at all.
The Board of Finance last week unanimously approved a contract with Municipal Tax Services, a Shelton company employed by similarly sized cities in Connecticut.
Tax Assessor Gregory Stackpole told the board it’s time to park more cars on the city’s tax rolls.
“This contract will help us find those motor vehicles that are garaged in Stamford but not taxed here,” Stackpole said. “The ones with out-of-state plates are the most visible, but other vehicles are either unregistered or registered in another town.”
Investigators with Municipal Tax Services photograph and scan cars parked street-side, and in lots and garages, during hours when people would be at home.
“If a car is consistently at a house at 3 a.m., that gives us reason to add it to our tax list,” Stackpole said.
License-plate scanners pick up information from the Department of Motor Vehicles that can be checked against the city’s database of addresses to determine whether the owner lives in Stamford. Investigators track the hours a car is parked at a certain address, and check vehicles as they pull out of apartment-complex garages on weekday mornings.
If the Board of Representatives approves the contract at its January meeting, the company will need six months to gather data “before we can start rolling out tax bills,” Stackpole said.
He will determine whether a car should be added to the tax rolls based on the information the company compiles, Stackpole said. Someone who is wrongly billed may dispute it before the Board of Assessment Appeals with proof of residence in another town.
According to the contract, Municipal Tax Services will be paid half the taxes, penalties and interest collected on a vehicle placed on the tax rolls as a result of its investigation, plus a $50 fee paid by the violator.
The company collects that amount only for the first year the vehicle is taxed, Stackpole said.
Finance board member Mary Lou Rinaldi is in favor of the crackdown.
“Anyone who lives in Stamford and registers their car in another town should be paying taxes here like everyone else,” Rinaldi said.
The idea was proposed a year ago by Robert Roqueta, shortly after he was sworn in as a member of the Board of Representatives.
Roqueta, a Democrat from District 4, said many of the cars parked regularly in the lot of his 80-unit East Side apartment complex have out-of-state license plates, especially from New York.
Roqueta said people who move to Stamford appear to be keeping their old license plates because New York does not charge motor vehicle taxes. The same is true for New Jersey, Vermont and Florida.
He cited another reason — each town in Connecticut sets its own motor vehicle tax rate, and they vary considerably. Stamford’s 27 mills is much higher than Greenwich, 11 mills, and Darien and New Canaan, 16 mills.
But Stamford is lower than Norwalk, 30 mills, and significantly less than comparably sized cities — New Haven, 42 mills; and Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury, all at 45 mills.
The range in rates translates into tax bills that differ by hundreds of dollars. It means the owner of a passenger car assessed at the average, $10,000, would pay $110 in taxes in Greenwich, but would be charged $270 for the same car in Stamford, and $450 in Waterbury.
Stackpole told the board that, because of its high tax rate, Waterbury has a significant problem with residents registering cars out of town. The city contracts with Municipal Tax Services and so far has added 3,500 vehicles to its rolls, Stackpole said.
He said Stamford could add about the name number, collecting another $1 million each year.
Stackpole said he contacted the Waterbury tax assessor to ask about Municipal Tax Services’ performance.
“They are very pleased. They’ve used this company for many years,” he told the board. “They said the contract pays for itself.”
According to Stamford’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, the city collected $22.3 million in motor vehicle tax revenue in fiscal 2016-17, the latest year available.
Motor vehicle taxes represent 4.5 percent of the $495 million in total tax revenue collected that year, but the amount is decreasing.
The report shows that, though total tax revenue increased 41 percent between 2008 and 2017, revenue from motor vehicle taxes fell 20 percent.
If the contract is approved, the city would have “a completely new source of billing, since we’ve never collected on these vehicles before,” said Jay Fountain, director of the Office of Policy and Management.
The city already uses an outside company to collect delinquent taxes owed by residents who do register their cars in Stamford. The collection rate for motor vehicle taxes is about 85 percent, which is lower than the 99 percent rate for property taxes, Fountain said.
“Cars are much harder to find than houses,” he said.
The Board of Representatives’ Fiscal Committee will discuss the contract at 7 p.m. Monday in the Democratic Caucus Room on the fourth floor of the Stamford Government Center, 888 Washington Blvd.