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Stamford residents can help drive hunt for car-tax evaders

December 20, 2018

STAMFORD — It’s about fairness.

And maybe spying.

But officials are poised to sign an agreement with a company that will use cameras, GPS tracking, license-plate readers, Connecticut and New York motor vehicle records, city databases and other information to identify residents who don’t pay their car taxes.

Beyond that, residents may be able to report vehicles that have out-of-state plates but live in Stamford.

It’s not clear how many evaders are out there, but officials estimate that, if they’re found, the city will add $1 million a year in tax revenue, and perhaps a lot more.

Taxpayers are enthusiastic for the program, said city Rep. Robert Roqueta, a Democrat representing the East Side’s District 4. In January, Roqueta proposed that the city hire a car-tax collection company.

“Since then, I’ve gotten an average of about three calls a month,” he said. “People in my district are asking, ‘What happened to your idea?’”

To raise revenue, the Board of Representatives is considering proposals from Mayor David Martin to increase fees for parking, building permits, dumping and other services, “yet we allow people to cheat and don’t try to find a way to get the money back,” Roqueta said.

“There will always be people who say, ‘Here’s Stamford again, going after the little guy.’ I disagree,” he said. “It’s about being responsible.”

The Board of Finance has unanimously approved a contract with a Shelton company, Municipal Tax Services. The Board of Representatives’ Fiscal Committee passed it 8-0 with one abstention. The full board is set to vote on it Jan. 7.

‘See something, say something’

Taxpayer Lawrence Winchell said the effort should include a way for residents to report suspected evaders. Call it a neighborhood watch, or “see something, say something,” he said.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who are irritated that people get away with this, and there would be a lot more eyes out there than if it’s just a company going around with a license-plate reader,” Winchell said. “If people know their neighbors are on the lookout, that may be enough to get them to pay their tax.”

He’s concerned, though, that the company can gather information only on vehicles in the public eye.

“They aren’t going to check cars that are parked in garages at houses, so they’re going to miss half the population,” Winchell said. “This program will mostly go after people who don’t own garages.”

City Rep. J.R. McMullen, R-18, asked about that during the Dec. 17 Fiscal Committee meeting.

“Won’t it adversely affect neighborhoods where cars are parked on the street?” McMullen asked Tax Assessor Gregory Stackpole, who is presenting the contract to the boards.

More tax evaders will be identified in neighborhoods “where cars are visible,” Stackpole said. But the city’s online tax assessment database already makes a lot of information public.

“We have 38,000 parcels of real estate and each has a photo on our website, often with a car parked in the driveway,” Stackpole said. “So the images are out there.”

Resident reports

Allowing resident reporting will boost chances that garaged cars are identified, Roqueta said. The company offers a form on its website, he said.

A check of www.municipaltaxservices.com shows a “report violator” button that leads to a form that may be filled out anonymously. It asks for the name and address of the owner, and the plate number, year, make, model and color of the vehicle. It also asks for an estimate of how long the vehicle has been at the address.

City Rep. Eric Morson, D-13, an early backer of Roqueta’s proposal, said he’s still weighing the notion of residents reporting on each other.

“I think we would have to work out policies and procedures for taking information from the public,” Morson said. “We don’t want to be known as the city that spies on you. It’s a privacy issue.”

But city Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, D-12, said he doesn’t see that.

“It’s a domicile issue. Is the car domiciled in Stamford or somewhere else?” Jacobson said during the meeting. “License plates and other publicly displayed information on vehicles is already used by law enforcement.”

Not a rat

Officials said they may consider a reporting hotline on the city’s website. Anyone who used it would not be “ratting on their neighbor,” Roqueta said.

“If your neighbor doesn’t know they have to register their car, you may prevent them from getting caught and fined,” he said. “If your neighbor is deliberately cheating the city, then that’s not a good neighbor.”

Some people who move from New York, New Jersey, Florida or Vermont do not change their registration because cars are not taxed in those states. Others register them in towns that charge less tax than Stamford.

Many may not know that if they move to Stamford from out of state, they have 60 days to register their car here. If they move within Connecticut, they have 48 hours to notify the DMV.

“A lot of people are coming to live in Stamford in all the apartments going up,” Roqueta said. “Maybe they think they won’t live here long, so they don’t register their car. I’m happy people are coming, but I believe in things being fair.”

Taxes for all

Stackpole said he thinks 3,000 to 4,000 vehicles could be added to the tax rolls. If the contract gets final approval, Municipal Tax Services would begin work in January. It would take six months for the company to gather the information so he can decide which vehicles belong on the tax rolls, Stackpole said. Suspected violators will have a chance to appeal.

The contract does not come with a cost. The company keeps half the revenue collected on new tax accounts that result from its investigation, plus a $50 fee from each violator.

Morson said exceptions likely will be made for people who drive a company car and have no say in where it’s registered. People who live in Florida for half the year likely would have the tax pro-rated, he said.

“This is not about pissing people off. It’s about squaring things up,” Morson said. “Everybody is concerned about taxes, and if you are evading yours, you should expect us to do something about it.”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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