Do Naugatuck Valley tax scandals point to wider issues?

With three Naugatuck Valley communities conducting separate investigations of corruption allegations involving taxes and municipal finances, questions are being raised about whether tighter controls on local tax collectors’ offices are needed.

“The public is wondering just what the heck is going on,” said Eugene Driscoll, editor of the Valley Independent Sentinel, a nonprofit local news website whose recent reporting led to a state criminal investigation of Ansonia’s tax office.

Ansonia’s tax collector, Bridget Bostic, resigned this week. She is suspected of issuing “tax clearance” documents, which allowed people to register their cars despite owing taxes on them. Bostic allegedly issued the forms to several individuals, including her mother, according to a fact-finding report by the city. The criminal investigation is continuing, and no charges have been filed against Bostic.

In Derby, former tax office employee Katherine Kulhawik allegedly voided cash payments made by taxpayers. Local officials have not specified what exactly happened to the cash, but a separation agreement between Kulhawik and the town requires her to pay $9,000 in what the town called “damages,” or face possible criminal charges.

In Shelton, hundreds of thousands of dollars were reported missing from the city’s finance office dating back to 2009, the city’s mayor announced recently, and state police are investigating.

And last month, Oxford’s former tax collector pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $200,000 from the town.

“It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to us,” said Old Saybrook Tax Collector Barry Maynard of the allegations. “It sends shivers up and down our spine.”

The cases have raised questions about how tax collectors’ offices are regulated. The state audits Connecticut municipalities each year, including tax offices, but more detailed forensic audits are rare.

Some reform advocates have also pushed for requiring that all tax collectors in the state be certified. Many towns who hire or appoint tax collectors require them to be certified. But about half of the state’s tax collectors are elected and don’t need certification, according to the Connecticut Tax Collectors Association (CTCA).

“At this point, because so many of our tax collectors are still elected, they don’t ever have to be certified,” said Dolly Mezzetti, tax collector in Guilford and a member of the CTCA’s certification committee, through which the state administers certification for tax collectors. In New Jersey, Mezzetti pointed out, all collectors are appointed and require certification.

Bostic, Ansonia’s former tax collector, was certified, according to the CTCA’s membership roster. But another issue that arose from the recent investigation is that Ansonia doesn’t keep track of the issuances of tax clearance documents.

“This will certainly be a topic at [the CTCA’s] November meeting,” Mezzetti said of the issues raised by the corruption allegations in the three Naugatuck Valley towns. “We’ve had instances in the past where there’s been collectors who’ve had issues, but they were few and far between.”

Even recertification requirements have not been established in Connecticut. The state legislature passed a law in 1999 that was supposed to mandate continuing education for tax collectors who want to maintain their certification. But Mezzetti said the law hasn’t been enacted yet. Her association and the state Office of Policy and Management have been writing and rewriting the language of the statute for the past 13 years.

This story is the result of a partnership between the Mirror and WNPR/Connecticut Public Radio. A radio version will be available Thursday morning.