Tax collector debate focuses on services

A debate for the position of town tax collector hosted by the League of Women Voters last week saw Republican incumbent Tod Laudonia face Democratic challenger Rick Novakowski.

The candidates were asked a number of questions, each of which permitted a one-and-one-half-minute response initially, and then allowed for 30 seconds of rebuttal after the opponent had spoken. While providing customer service to Greenwich’s taxpayers was a major theme through the evening, the two men clashed on just how effective the office has been in the four years of Mr. Laudonia’s tenure.

Mr. Laudonia said experience showed him to be successful within the position, with a tax collection rate of more than 99% for each year he has held the office. But Mr. Novakowski challenged Mr. Laudonia’s claims of above-average tax collection rates, referencing the town’s Comprehensive Financial Report (CFR), which he said proved that the tax collector’s collection rate had dropped during his first three years in office.

“I don’t know what accounting principles [Mr. Laudonia] is using,” Mr. Novakowski said.

In rebuttal, Mr. Laudonia said collection rates are based on simple math — how much money is supposed to be collected versus how much is actually collected — and that if numbers had been manipulated he couldn’t address it without the document in front of him.

One of the debate’s questions was about what the main duty of the tax collector is and how that individual could be most effective. Both candidates agreed that the tax collector’s most basic job is to collect taxes in a timely manner and to have that money deposited. Mr. Laudonia further argued that the position is one guided by ideas from other tax collectors within the state as well as state conferences and seminars, where tax issues that are often not unique to Greenwich are addressed.

In return, Mr. Novakowski insisted the job was ultimately customer service-based.

“I think it’s a customer service position,” Mr. Novakowski said. “I think you can do a lot more than just the basics. You need to be there in the office to supervise as well as to oversee people as they come in.”

It is essential that the tax collector always be available to assist the taxpayers, Mr. Novakowski said, adding that he had heard from town residents that an employee in Mr. Laudonia’s office sometimes couldn’t be found sitting at the front of the office ready to help, but rather a bell was used to ring for service.

In rebuttal, Mr. Laudonia said that several staffing cuts had been made recently and that one full-time employee had passed away over the spring. No one waits at the collector’s office, he added, explaining that employees don’t sit in the front of the office because they are in the back working on other responsibilities, but always appear to service those who ring the bell for assistance.

The next question addressed how each candidate’s experience, both professionally and within the community, had prepared him for the tax collector position. Mr. Novakowski said his previous professional experience overseeing between a few hundred and 1,000 employees each day attested to his ability to manage others, as he was responsible for both the staff and providing quality of service. As a tax collector, the business operation is smaller but the necessity of providing “first class service” to taxpayers is always present, and an aspect of the job he had experience in, he said.

As far as community involvement, Mr. Novakowski said, he is often involved in town projects as a result of his love for the town.

“The passion I’ve shown, the goodwill I’ve developed in this town, I think will suit this office well. I think the people trust me,” Mr. Novakowski said.

Mr. Laudonia said his past professional experience provided him with customer service skills and the ability to deal with the public from a professional standpoint. In terms of community experience, Mr. Laudonia said he had served on the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for 14 years and served as a volunteer for the Greenwich Catholic School Board of Education for the last decade.

“I have been involved intimately in the town of Greenwich as a volunteer basically my whole life,” Mr. Laudonia said.

Turning to the tax collector’s office as a whole, the men were asked how they would automate the office to increase efficiency.

Without experience serving as tax collector, Mr. Novakowski said, he would draw from past management experience in which he constantly evaluates and re-evaluates a situation and then makes improvements accordingly and within a short period of time. Mr. Laudonia said he could draw from the experience he’s already acquired as tax collector and explained that the biggest issue employees had when he was first elected to office was an aversion to the financial software used by the town.

Mr. Laudonia said he spent three years doing research and working with tax assessors to find and provide more user-friendly financial software for the town, which should soon be implemented. This change will also allow residents more opportunities to handle issues electronically, which is an added convenience for taxpayers, Mr. Laudonia said.

In perhaps the most divisive question of the debate, each candidate was asked about his views with respect to tax delinquencies and whether it was better for the town to allow residents to stay delinquent or if the threat of foreclosure and auction to collect the overdue taxes was the best course of action.

Mr. Laudonia explained that his personal opinion as a tax collector was that it’s vital to try to collect 100% of taxes, but noted that there are often situations in which residents find themselves delinquent, specifically within the last five years as a result of the economic downturn. And while the town does not strive for it, those who can’t come up with the money must pay a rate of 18% on delinquent taxes, he said.

Mr. Novakowski said he believed in the opposite approach. While Mr. Laudonia has been quoted in the past as saying it’s compassionate to collect that 18%, Mr. Novakowski said, that is not the right thing to do. Instead, the tax collector should do whatever is necessary to ensure that residents do not dig themselves into a hole from which they are unable to recover their property.

“I don’t think the town should be in the banking business,” Mr. Novakowski said, adding that he would work with residents to find a way to avoid delinquency charges.

In response, Mr. Laudonia said 18% is not an arbitrary rate but rather one mandated by state statute and that it was important to know people and neighborhoods in order to best assess these kinds of situations.

When asked if the tax collector position should be filled by an appointed professional with expertise in that role, Mr. Laudonia explained that that was already the case. Mr. Laudonia is the first Greenwich tax collector to be certified with the Certified Connecticut Municipal Collectors (CCMC) and participates in continuing education and seminars to keep his skills sharp, he said.

In terms of appointing rather than electing the position, Mr. Laudonia said it was a matter of one’s beliefs regarding governance, explaining that he believed there should be as many elected officials in town as possible because they represent the people. Mr. Novakowski agreed, insisting that there are not enough elected officials as it is and that the elected positions that do exist should not be eliminated. The town should pride itself on a citizen government because there’s an accountability to taxpayers if you’re an elected official, Mr. Novakowski said.

To conclude the debate, each candidate was given two minutes to make a closing statement about his candidacy. Mr. Laudonia expressed his gratitude for the outpouring of encouragement he had received for a job well done as tax collector thus far. He also reminded community members that the Greenwich office was one of the most efficient tax collection offices in the state and that the collection rate over the past year was at 99.6%.

“Cooperation is the working theme of the tax collector’s officer, whether it is with our taxpayers, the department heads, boards and commissions, or legislatures,” Mr. Laudonia said. “I’ve worked with all closely and effectively.”

In return, Mr. Novakowski urged voters to disregard party affiliation in making their decision about who would best serve as the town’s tax collector.

Noting that his decisions have always been guided by a love of the town and its people rather than a party affiliation, Mr. Novakowski urged voters, “Ask yourself, which candidate will define public service best? Personal sacrifice best? Dedicated, selfless work ethic best? Which candidate, regardless of party, will always put the taxpayer first, embrace working with others and do whatever he can to serve your interests while working in that office?”

 

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