Town officials have differing opinions over whether a list of possible delinquent taxpayers should have been released to the public this week.
At Wednesday’s Board of Selectman meeting at Town Hall, First Selectman George Temple defended his decision to release the list, which shows more than $10 million is owed by about 2,000 people. But officials admit the list is inaccurate - just how inaccurate they don't know yet - because of poor, and possibly illegal, accounting practices in the tax office during the tenure of a former tax collector accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands from her office.
“This list has existed for a long time,” Temple said, adding that nobody elected him to be a coward. “It’s not my list, it’s not (current tax collector) Cayenne Spremullo’s list. People are upset, but in reality, I think we actually helped those people because they are on a list they didn’t even know about. …This was an unusual step, but it had to be taken.”
The now infamous list has caused quite a stir since it was released to the press on Tuesday. People have flocked to Town Hall asking why their names were released even though they have proof they paid their taxes. They believe the list should have been vetted to take off names of people who don’t actually owe before it was made public.
Temple, a Republican, apologized if he offended anyone and later said - “if I made a mistake, I made a mistake, but this is the first time I’ve had to deal with a $10.2 million deficit." He vowed that names which do not belong on the list will be removed, and said he will publicly vindicate those people.
However, that’s not good enough in the eyes of Selectman Dave McKane, the lone Democrat on the three-member Board of Selectman. He says there was a better way to go about trying to recoup money owed to the town.
“If I were a taxpayer who had paid taxes and yet my name showed up on this list, I’d be pretty irate,” he said. “I don’t think it should have gone public.”
He believes that once everyone who paid their fair share has their accounts credited, the list will show “closer to $2 million” in delinquencies. The list dates back to 1997 because 15 years is how long the statute of limitations allows municipalities to collect.
He said the previous administration – headed by Democrat Mary Ann Drayton-Rogers, who was first selectman with McKane as her running mate – was able to recoup tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes without embarrassing people unfairly.
He also claimed state TV news stations and local news outlets that are now covering this story will not publish a list of taxpayers who have proven their names were on the list inadvertently. (Editor’s Note: Oxford Patch has vowed to publish this list in an attempt to vindicate people, and we will stick to our word.)
Temple responded to McKane’s claim that the real list of delinquencies is closer to $2 million.
“With all due respect, I don’t think you have a clue and neither do I,” Temple said. “And that’s why we’re going to figure it out.”
And, Temple said, he owes it to taxpayers to give them "a fair and honest representation of what the tax rolls really are" and to make every effort to collect taxes. Town officials say former Tax Collector Karen Guillet, the woman accused of stealing more than $670,000* from the town, did not try too hard to collect back taxes during her 21-year tenure. For example, she didn’t send out delinquency notices to people, a basic step taken by tax offices to collect back taxes.
Only one person, resident James Hansen, spoke about the tax list at the meeting. He said he feels for people whose names were placed on the delinquency list unfairly and that he, too, believes the town should have tried to reach people on the list to find out if they actually owed money before releasing their names.
“Maybe something can be done for people who have wrongly been put on that list. Maybe they can get some kind of tax abatement,” he said, adding that a public hearing should be held about the tax list and that he believes this issue should be the main focus of town officials over the next couple of months until it is straightened out.
Straightening out this issue could prove a yeoman’s task, but Temple says he’s willing to tackle the challenge head-on.
One challenge officials will face, he said, is that residents will inevitably say they’ve paid taxes but have no proof. “That’s a problem,” he said. “That’s a real problem.”
He said he will meet with selectmen, the town attorney, the finance director, the Board of Finance, the tax collector and others to figure out how to address that issue.
Anyone who sees their name on the list of delinquent taxpayers – it can be found attached to this story, click on the PDF on the right-hand side – should call the tax collector’s office at 203.888.2543, ext. 3022.
Note: *Temple noted Wednesday the $670,000 figure goes back just five years and is what could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. He and other officials speculate that the true amount taken was far greater. The reason people's accounts show they didn't pay when in fact they did, town officials say, is because Guillet would not credit accounts of people who paid to make it look like she was taking in less money at the office while she pocketed cash.