Tax Collector’s Race Gets Personal

by Christopher O'Brien

clipArt_moneySymbolWithout taxes, little else can get done. If revenues slide below the projection placed in the Town budget, then road paving, hiring, and other operations are put on hold.

This year two women are asking for your vote for Tax Collector. Both already hold key positions in Town Hall, although neither has ever run for elected office before now.

IMG_0002The tax collector doesn’t simply send out bills and oversee a small staff to process returns. They also try to work with residents who cannot pay their taxes to ensure what is owed is actually paid. “We often work with people who are facing financial hardship. But sometimes we have to get tough and go after them with collections agencies or levy a tax warrant,” says current tax collector Cheryl McQueen Brundage. Brundage is running on her 7-1/2 years of experience in the tax office – one and a half of which overseeing the department.

Her opponent, Darlene Dunn, says that services in the tax office can be enhanced. She believes she can use her current experience as the Town’s Municipal Agent to also assist senior citizens, and others facing financial hardship in the tax office. “Every person who sits across from me is facing a troubling hardship. I stop at nothing to find resources for them,” she says of her current position. Dunn assists over 800 residents every year in obtaining scarce Energy Assistance funds. When she began in the office, less than 100 households were able to benefit. Much of the reason for the increase in demand is the dire economy. She believes that having both services in the same office makes sense.

McQueen. Dunn. Do the two names look familiar to you? Both are well known in town making this race particularly contested. And it’s causing quite a bit of mudslinging.

Brundage FlyerCheryl McQueen Brundage is the daughter of former Tax Collector Lorraine McQueen. The elder McQueen served in the office for 38 years before retiring in February 2012. The Democratic Town Committee elected her as McQueen’s replacement to serve out the four year term. In her first full year, (FY 12-13) Brundage surpassed the Town Council’s collection goal of 98.5%. This was also a full percentage point higher than was collected a year before.

Brundage further notes that she introduced online bill paying, a Facebook page and a weekly column in the Wolcott Community News to communicate with the town.

Tynan has worked in the Municipal Agent position since 2007. Besides assisting with social services, she is also the town’s grant writer. She points to this public service, as well a ten years in the local banking industry as reasons voters should have confidence in her abilities for the job. “I’m more than qualified to become the next Tax Collector,” she says.

However, Brundage has stated that Tynan isn’t qualified for the position. “She’s never worked in a tax office. Without that experience, the collection rate can fall and that directly impacts the mill rate to the town,” she tells The Whisper. The mill rate is the tax rate on every $1,000 of personal property which includes land, buildings and vehicles. It is set by the Town Council. How much they believe the Collector can raise is a factor they consider in setting the annual tax rate.

“Experience matters,” says Brundage.

She further says that the duties of a tax collector are too demanding to also do the services Tynan has proposed. “You can’t do two jobs. Pick one.”

Tynan disagrees. She believes that the tax office makes more sense to assist those needing heating assistance and other services. She further notes that Brundage has proposed writing off over $319,000 in taxes that she wasn’t able to collect. Every year the Tax Collector evaluates old debt and whether or not it can be collected. Such debt is added to a “suspense” list. In 2012 that list included $170,874 and in 2013, $73,536. The Whisper isn’t able to evaluate whether or not this is a reasonable amount for a town of similar size.

IMG_0001A recent flyer distributed by Brundage injected a more personal side to the campaign. The flyer was labeled “Tax Collector Report Card” (see sidebar). The flyer – paid by the Democratic Town Committee – gave “grades” for both candidates. Brundage gave herself “A’s” in categories ranging from Experience to Customer Service. She gave Dunn “F’s and going as far as alleging that Tynan has “no concept” of customer service. But the family relationships are where she drew fire.

Tynan is referred to as “Darlene DUNN Tynan”, in an attempt to draw a conflict of interest between the Tax Collector and Mayor’s office, even though both are voted upon by taxpayers and are managed independently from each other. The married mayor’s sister doesn’t use her maiden name. Brundage didn’t either before this election cycle.

Brundage’s opponents point to the flyer itself as hypocrisy where it says that Brundage “learned from the best… Lorraine McQueen”.  Questions quietly surfaced during the 2009 campaign of whether or not McQueen would intentionally retire during the middle of her term in order to pass the Tax Collector post on to her daughter. McQueen barely survived a challenge that year by Row C candidate Vanessa Malena by only 139 votes.

Brundage further points out that Tynan isn’t a state certified tax collector. Yet, according to the Connecticut Tax Collectors’ Association and state statute, no one can take tax collector classes unless they actually work in a tax office. “I’ve been calling the Tax Collectors’ Association to take the classes for months – but they tell me that I can’t even take the class unless I work in the office. And when I get there, I’ll be able to take the  6-8 week class which mostly deals with the relevant state statutes pertaining to tax law,” says Tynan. “The current tax collector wasn’t certified when she started in the office either.”

Brundage maintains that experience matters in the office. When asked how she exceeded the 98.5% collection rate, she cited several methods. “We use everything at our disposal. We work with people who have financial burdens, often giving them up to three years to repay. Most towns won’t go beyond one. Unfortunately many taxpayers ignore final notices that we mail out. But they can’t ignore tax warrants or tax auctions.” Under her direction, over 25 properties were recently slated to be sold at auction. None were, however, because the owners paid up just in time.

Tynan bristled at the “F” grades Brundage gave her. “There will be no conflict of interest if I’m elected tax collector,” Tynan told the Meet The Candidates’ night last Wednesday. She maintained that the flyer backfired. “What happened to running on your record? I am a Dunn and the Dunn’s and Tynan’s have reputations of hard workers,  showing respect, and most of all- we have character.” I’m running on my record and invite those who know me to give me a grade at the ballot box.

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