J.R. McMullen was among the members of the Stamford Board of Representatives who worried in 2019 that a contract before them would unleash Big Brother.
Then-Mayor David Martin wanted to hire a Shelton company, Municipal Tax Services, to drive around the city at night photographing license plates in a search for the suspected thousands of motorists who don’t pay Stamford taxes on their vehicles.
McMullen and other city representatives said it was an uneasy example of too-powerful government prying into people’s lives.
But, this week, McMullen – along with the five other members of the Board of Finance, where he now sits – voted to renew the Municipal Tax Services contract.
“My concern was the potential harassment of people who didn’t do anything wrong – I was expecting MTS to identify 1,000 cars and collect money from 200,” McMullen said after Thursday’s Board of Finance meeting. “But they identified about 9,000 cars and collected from almost 8,000 – a 90 percent hit rate.”
You can’t argue much with that, McMullen said.
“I do have privacy concerns, but it’s hard to do when you see there are so many tax scofflaws,” McMullen said. “I think this program is a success.”
Finance board Chairman Richard Freedman said the same during the meeting, when Tax Assessor Greg Stackpole told members that 7,900 vehicles have been added to city tax rolls over the four years of the MTS contract, which soon expires.
Stackpole went before the board to request another two-year contract for MTS with options for two one-year extensions. When Stackpole requested the first MTS contract in 2019, he estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 vehicles could be added to the tax rolls. It has been twice that.
During the meeting, Freedman did some calculations based on Stamford’s $1.2 billion motor vehicle Grand List, which is the total value of all taxable vehicles in the city.
“The motor vehicle Grand List increased by $30 million to $35 million a year. Multiply that by the mill rate and it’s about $800,000 a year in taxes that we picked up,” Freedman said. “It holds true for pretty much every year of this contract. We have effectively increased the motor vehicle Grand List by about 3 percent each year. It’s kind of a gift that keeps on giving.”
MTS earns 50 percent of the taxes, interest and fees collected from a scofflaw for each year the scofflaw was not paying car taxes. The other 50 percent goes to the city.
If, for example, MTS identifies a car for which the owner failed to pay taxes in 2022 and the two previous years, the company gets half the taxes, interest and fees collected for those years. But, with the car back on the tax roll, the city gets the full amount in 2023 and thereafter.
MTS also gets $50 from each violator.
“It cost the city $1.3 million to earn about $3.6 million,” McMullen figured during the meeting. “That’s a pretty good return.”
The amount of revenue is actually more, Stackpole said, since multiple investigations are still in the works.
“There’s money that just hasn’t been collected yet,” he said.
About a third of the cars missing from the tax rolls have out-of- state plates, Stackpole said. A third are not registered at all, he said. And a third are registered in another town in Connecticut, often because the driver never notified the state Department of Motor Vehicles that they had moved, Stackpole said.
Finance board member Dennis Mahoney wanted to know whether MTS will, in effect, make itself obsolete.
“Will we get to a time where they’re not finding as many people?” Mahoney asked. “Will we get to a point of diminishing returns?”
That has not been his experience, said MTS owner Carl DeProfio, who started the company in 2005. Besides Stamford, 10 other Connecticut cities contract with MTS – Bridgeport, New Haven, West Haven, Waterbury, Hartford, Danbury, Hamden, North Haven, New Milford and Bethel.
“We have been in Waterbury since 2010, nonstop, and we’re still getting stuff. And we’re getting a lot of stuff,” DeProfio said Friday. “Even when we catch people and they have to pay a 25 percent penalty, they still don’t pay their taxes. There are people in Waterbury who we’ve caught four times.”
MTS operators use a camera and laptop system that reads license plates, photographs vehicles and provides GPS coordinates for where they are parked. The operator drives along streets with the camera automatically capturing license plates, thousands of them a night, DeProfio said.
They work at night because that’s when a vehicle most likely is parked where it “lives,” DeProfio said. Cameras have infrared lenses so they can shoot pictures in the dark, though the range is limited. Operators sometimes have to read the plate number and enter it into the system manually, he said.
“Cities are usually well-lit, so it’s easier,” he said. “In the little towns, there’s not as much light. We’re in our third year in Bethel and it’s a slow process. There aren’t many street lights.”
In four years in Stamford, MTS operators “have pretty much been on every street multiple times,” DeProfio said. “We go everywhere we’re allowed. We don’t go on private property. We don’t drive down driveways. We don’t go in private parking lots. Everything is done from public access.”
Operators set up outside apartment buildings and condominium complexes in the morning to capture license plate numbers as people head for work. They also sometimes do that in single-family neighborhoods where cars are parked in garages or at the end of long driveways.
The observations are entered into an MTS server and checked against the municipality’s Grand List, DeProfio said.
“If a vehicle is on the Grand List, we discard that information. If not, we start investigating,” he said.
They check vehicle registration information, real estate records, voter registration lists, social media, and more.
“We learn a lot from social media,” DeProfio said. “One guy was selling his car on social media. He said, ‘Contact me in Waterbury at this address.’ But the car he was selling was registered in West Hartford.”
And MTS learns a lot from snitching. The company allows residents to anonymously report suspected violations at www.municipaltaxservices.com.
“Everywhere we are, people report other people,” DeProfio said. “They get frustrated because they are paying their taxes and other people are not. Someone will tell us about a very expensive vehicle parked in a driveway and give us the plate number. We’ll go, but if we don’t see it, we can’t report it.”
The company got a call from a person who’d just returned from a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Waterbury, DeProfio said.
“He said he heard a discussion between two people who were standing behind him in line. A guy said he registers one of his cars in Waterbury and his other car somewhere else because he doesn’t want to pay high taxes on both cars,” DeProfio said. “There was nothing we could do, of course, because we had no information on that car.”
All findings are sent to the tax assessor, who decides whether a motorist gets a letter saying taxes are owed, DeProfio said.
“The assessor sets the criteria and makes the determination that a car belongs on the Grand List in that town,” he said.
McMullen, one of Stamford’s elected fiscal watchdogs, said he’s satisfied so far.
“When you think about how things usually go in the city, this is a good deal,” he said.