Archive for October 31st, 2009

October 31, 2009

2009 Election Analysis: Tax Collector

Update: Ms. McQueen writes an insightful response to this post below giving more depth and information to the legal aspects of tax collection than was originally included. It is well-written and should be considered before you vote!!!

Tax Collector
This race is more heated than the mayor’s race where 36 year incumbent Lorraine McQueen facing a strong challenge by Vanessa Malena. Malena has worked as a debt collector for a private firm and asserts that there are publicly available ways to track down tax scouflaws not already being utilized. In response to Malena’s claims that McQueen has neglected to collect 1.7 million dollars in back taxes, McQueen asserts that those people oweing those taxes simply cannot be found, have died, or gone out of business.

McQueen has prided her office in being approachable to taxpayers in a fair manner, particularly when faced with hardships. Yet, she has come under scrutiny when she gave her Suspense List report to the Town Council in both 2008 and 2009. The suspense list is supposed to tax debt owed that is deemed ‘uncollectable’. A reason is noted why a debtor cannot be located. Yet, in 2008 one person who ran for local office – and sat on one town commission – was on that list. Another owned a business in town. The 2009 list included a relative of the assistant tax collector’s daughter. Further, in August and September 2009, Ms. McQueen appeared before the Town Council to give information and presumably approval for a tax lien on a property on Wolcott Rd. The rightful owner of the property could not be located and relatives of the deceased former owner were not interested in the property. While being compassionate to a person occupying the property, the discussion between the Tax Collector, Sherriff, and Town Council members was to move ahead on a tax lien. Yet, Ms. McQueen didn’t have the proper address for the residence. Instead of looking the address up, she guessed the address. A Councilman corrected her in noting that the address she presented was at least half a mile north of the location she was referring to. Sometime after the meeting the correct address was found. Thankfully the town avoided a serious legal error.

In the positive column, Ms. McQueen is well liked and very approachable. “My office is open to any taxpayer” she said at a recent forum. For town leaders, she has been very timely with information that they need. Residents who have been affected by layoffs and cut backs in their employment have approached the taxpayers’ office to work out payment plans. This year, the Republican dominated Town Council set the tax collection rate at $100,000 higher than last year’s goal. So far, McQueen has already met 83% of that goal only 3 months into the fiscal year. This included a significant agreement of back taxes owed by Devon Manufacturing who had some financial difficulty. Devon is one of the top taxpayers in town.

Malena has been coming on strong in the final days of the campaign. At the Meet The Candidates’ forum, she noted that she has the same compassion that Ms. McQueen where neither has any desire to throw residents out on the street for taxes. Neither wants to see businesses move out either because of financial hardship. She also noted with respect Ms. McQueen’s 36 years of service -a turnaround from earlier in the campaign when some of her signs referred to McQueen as having “36 years of failure”. She continued to note her experience as a debt collector for a private firm that collects on multimillion dollar collections from all over North America, Asia and Europe.

That experience certainly gives her plenty of ideas on how to find people who may not want to be found. In a flyer mailed to residents on Friday, she outlined her proposals for collecting taxes. Those included better exchanging information with other towns, working with the Superintendant of Schools and Registrars of Voters to find when people move out of town, and obtaining change of address information from the Post Office.

That same campaign flyer mailed to Wolcott residents Friday by Malena’s campaign also outlined some negative campaigning. Presented in the form of a playbill, it outlined percieved connections between McQueen, former Democratic Chairman John McCarthy, Assistant Tax Collector Cheryl Brundage, and Town Councilman Santagotta. She notes that Brundage – McQueen’s daughter – has a relative on the 2009 suspense list, and is listed as “unable to be found”. McCarthy’s tax problem has been public knowledge for many years, but he has been making payments for quite some time. Santagotta is being pulled into this fray as the chairman of the Delinquent Tax sub-committee of the Council. That committee did meet at least once prior to the budget was approved this year. She also accuses of Santagotta of having plenty of time to launch state elections investigations against independent candidates for sign violations. This echos similar complaints Santagotta launched against Council Republicans shortly after Republicans took hold of the Council after the 2007 elections.

In that case, charges were filed that Republicans held an illegal meeting when unnaffiliated member Michael Bokon wished to join Republicans in a caucus. It wasn’t known to him or Republicans at the time that Mr. Bokon would need to make his caucus preference official by notifying the Town Clerk. A State ethics board ruled the meeting was illegal because 5 Council members had met together and Democrats were not invited or included. Ultimatly, they provided minutes of the time they were together for about 2 minutes.

In a profession that was ridiculed in the days of Jesus Christ, the Tax collector’s position certainly has garnerd much of the limelight in town. The voters will need to decide who should have the job of collecting their own hard-earned money for needed town services. Certainly you don’t want someone who is too harsh as to be unworkable. Conversely, you don’t someone who is too lenient in their job – because then civic minded residents end up paying more for those who don’t pay at all.

Trying to skim through the negative campaign, Malena’s straight forward presentation of how one could find tax offenders is clear. Whether or not McQueen already employes these methods is the question. Both have called for new technology, and McQueen says that new technology is just about ready to be implemented. Malena seems to have experience in pursuing debtors that would be inherent in a tax office. In the end, it may come down to personality and whether or not voters believe the connections between McQueen and other Democrats as being a scandal, incidental, or if they really matter to the job. In any campaign for the job of bringing revenue into the town, trust may become the most important factor in voters’ decisions on Tuesday.

by Lorraine McQueen

Ms. Malena may work for a private firm in collections, but be aware the laws are very different for public and private collections. I use all the enforcement tools available to me by law to collect current and delinquent taxes with the exclusion of throwing people out on the street. Since July 1, 2009 I have collected $650,000 in delinquent taxes. I have an open door policy for all taxpayers and everyone is treated honestly, fair and equal. I encourage taxpayers to meet with me to discuss how they are going to be able to pay their taxes.

I have never said that all the people owing taxes cannot be found, have died or gone out of business. That is true about some but not all. Some people have filed bankruptcy which stops all collection actions against those individuals. Other people are contacted by the tax office over and over again and ignore all attempts for me to collect their Delinquent MV taxes. They have been put on the DMV Delinquent list and don’t care. They register their cars under other people’s names, they change their names or they just don’t get another car. I go to work every day to collect taxes; that is my job I work hard at it and take my job very seriously. I have a consistently high collection rate of 99% or better. If taxes were not being collected the town would be running in the red and in a deficit instead of a surplus every year.

For the record lets’ discuss what the suspense list is. A suspense list is required by state statute to be supplied to the Finance Board of the Town (Town Council) every year and must be accepted by the Council. A suspense list is comprised of mostly MV taxes that have gone unpaid for more than 3 years, the usual registration renewal period. The person has been placed on the DMV delinquent list so they cannot register a MV without a release from the Tax Collector of Wolcott or any other town where they may be delinquent. Putting something on suspense does not stop any collection actions or my ability to collect the tax payment; it removes the value from the Grand List so when the Town Council is calculating the mill rate they have an accurate number to use for collectables to set the mill rate. As for the relative, of the Assistant Tax Collector this person has been placed on the DMV delinquent list just like everyone else and has not had a vehicle registered in his name since 2006 when his last registration expired. The soft ware used in my office does not allow you to pick and choose who gets put on the delinquent list. Anyone with an open balance get put on the DMV delinquent list. The put-ons are done twice a year after the July collections and after the January collections. Take-offs are done monthly as the people on the delinquent list pay their taxes they are taken off the DMV list.

My opponent says she has new ideas and a new vision for Wolcott and has talked about her “Common Sense Collection Plan” which is really funny because none of that is new or visionary because most of her plan is what we already do on a daily basis in my office. We are set to go ahead with on-line payments for the July 2010 payments, all records are public information available by phone or over the counter and will be able to be viewed by anyone once we are on-line, we accept credit/debit cards as well as telephone payments, we work with the delinquent tax committee, notify DMV of delinquent MV taxes and last but not least vigorously enforce collections among all tax evaders using all means necessary. Doesn’t sound new and visionary to me, sounds like Tax Collection 101.