Stealthy pursuit of car-tax evaders set to start
STAMFORD - City Rep. Steven Kolenberg said some of his constituents are “creeped out” by a contract the Board of Representatives approved this week.
It will allow a company to search for car-tax evaders by snapping photos of license plates during the night.
“Someone is going to go through every street in Stamford and methodically document the property of our citizens. We are hiring a pair of prying eyes, a professional Peeping Tom,” Kolenberg, a Republican representing District 16, told fellow board members.
“People who do not pay their car taxes even though they live in Stamford is a very serious issue, and I don’t want to downplay it, but I feel the cure is almost worse than the disease,” Kolenberg said. “There has to be a better way to address this issue than what we propose here … some guy driving around, counting every car and … taking pictures in the middle of the night.”
He was in the minority. The 40-member board OK’d the contract with a Shelton company, Municipal Tax Services, by a vote of 24-11, with one abstention and four members absent or not voting.
City Rep. Monica Di Costanzo, chair of the Fiscal Committee, which researched the contract, said questions about privacy and security were vetted.
“They’re not going to be running around in backyards, going over fences and peeking into garages,” Di Costanzo said. “We’re a little bit tired of seeing people working very hard to pay their property taxes, and others who get the benefits of … the things that taxpayers pay for, and don’t pay.”
Municipal Tax Services operators don’t do anything surreptitious, said the owner, Carl DeProfio.
“We always operate from public property,” DeProfio said. “We only capture what we can see. We don’t go into gated communities. We don’t go into parking lots that are posted ‘private.’”
Operators work with a camera system connected to a laptop that reads license plates, photographs vehicles and provides GPS coordinates for the spots where vehicles are parked.
“An operator can capture thousands of plates a night, just driving down the street,” DeProfio said. “The camera automatically captures everything it sees. It’s dark, so the camera has an infrared lens, but it works for only a certain number of feet. If something is far away, the operator can stop and with the laptop manually enter a plate and snap a photo.”
Kolenberg said he fears that owners of cars parked on or close to the street will be caught, and those with garages and long driveways will not.
“Who do you think will be targeted by this? The big driveways in North Stamford? Or is this going to be more successful in places where driveways are a little shorter, like maybe downtown or the West Side?” Kolenberg asked.
DeProfio said city officials asked that when they met with his company.
“They said, ‘How will you get the vehicles that are under apartment buildings or in garages or behind fences?’” he said. “We set up out front and wait for them to leave in the morning.”
Night is the best time to determine where a vehicle owner lives, and to avoid those who drive into Stamford each day to work, said DeProfio, who has been in the business since 1998 and started Municipal Tax Services in 2005.
Representatives said Bridgeport, Danbury, New Haven, Hartford, Hamden, North Haven, Stratford, West Haven and Waterbury have used Municipal Tax Services.
“We’re getting a lot of contracts now,” DeProfio said. “It’s because the state cut the cities’ revenue share, so they’re looking for money.”
Tax Assessor Greg Stackpole has said he estimates Stamford loses at least $1 million a year because people fail to register their cars here, or register them instead in places that charge lower taxes — or, like New York, no taxes. Stackpole estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 more vehicles could be taxed.
“Wherever we go, we find a lot of people,” DeProfio said.
According to the contract, the company will be paid half the taxes, penalties and interest collected on a vehicle once — when it is added to the tax rolls. The company also collects a $50 fee from the violator.
Operators work off the city’s Grand List and verify vehicle owners’ addresses using real estate listings, voter registration lists and other databases. Suspected violators get a letter from the tax assessor, who determines whether a vehicle should be taxed.
DeProfio said most violations involve unregistered vehicles.
“The biggest revenue maker is cars with expired plates that people just didn’t renew,” he said.
City Rep. Robert Roqueta, D-4, proposed that the city hire a car-tax collection company last January after noticing the number of cars with out-of-state license plates parked continuously in the lot of his East Side apartment complex.
Roqueta has said he likes that residents may anonymously report suspected violations at www.municipaltaxservices.com.
Stamford residents have been submitting online forms since an Advocate story about the pending contract was printed last month, DeProfio said.
“We’re getting flooded with complaints,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Go to this section, there’s all New York cars there.’ They’re giving us plate numbers, descriptions of vehicles, locations, how long they’ve parked there. There have to be 50 complaints, and we don’t even have a contract yet. The mayor has to sign it.”
Arthur Augustyn, special assistant to David Martin, said Wednesday the mayor intends to sign the contract.