Council plans tax relief, hires auditor in online meeting

TRUMBULL — Tax relief for those affected by the coronavirus is on the way, although what form it takes is still to be determined.

The Trumbull Town Council will convene a special meeting within the next few weeks to decide on one of several actions authorized by Gov. Ned Lamont in an executive order last week.

The council can reduce the interest rate on overdue tax payments from 18 percent to 3 percent for 90 days, it can allow taxpayers to defer their tax payments for 90 days or it can do both, according to Town Attorney Daniel Schopick.

“We can do either, or both, but we can’t do neither,” Schopick told the council at its online meeting April 6. “We’re going to have to adopt something.”

The council also has the option of making the reduced interest rate income-dependent or applying it across the board. The deferred payment plan would apply only to people whose income has been affected by COVID-19, Schopick said.

“There would be an application form that they would fill out,” Schopick said. The applicant would affirm that they have had their income reduced by 20 percent or more due to the virus, or that they had been laid off from their job.

Landlords also would be eligible to have their tax payments deferred if they demonstrated that they had provided their tenants with similar relief, Schopick said.

Trumbull is one of the first towns to face this decision since the town’s residents pay taxes quarterly. Most towns have property tax payments due twice a year. Trumbull residents have a property tax bill that was due April 1, and interest will begin accruing after May 1. Therefore the council should act quickly, Schopick said.

Taxes was one of three topics the council discussed in the meeting, which was available for residents to view online or listen to over the phone. The meeting was also streamed live on the Trumbull Community Television Facebook page and will be available for viewing.

In addition to the tax plan, the council also adopted a revised budget schedule, in accordance with another of Lamont’s executive orders. The town’s 2020-21 fiscal year still will begin June 1, but the deadlines for the council to pass a final budget have been pushed back about two weeks to May 26, the day after Memorial Day. The Board of Finance also had its deadline pushed back two weeks, to April 27. Public hearings on the budget will be conducted online, with members of the public allowed to comment via email or by indicating their desire to speak through an online “Raise Hand” feature.

Finally, the mostly Democrat council voted 15-5 along party lines to allocate $36,000 to accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies for an audit of the town’s Board of Education budget. The school budget experienced a significant shortfall this year, which interim Supt. Ralph Iassogna attributed to a number of factors, including some programs that took place despite not being funded in the 2019-20 school budget.

The audit resulted in the meeting’s most heated exchange, as Councilman Lori Rosasco-Schwartz, R-3rd District, opposed the hire on the grounds that the town already has an auditor on staff.

“I’m more than supportive of auditing the Board of Education, every department should be subject to an audit,” she said. “I have an issue with spending taxpayer funds to have an external auditor.”

Rosasco-Schwartz favored assigning responsibility for the school audit to the town’s internal auditor, Therese Keegan. Keegan is charged with conducting independent audits of the town’s operations to determine effectiveness and efficiency. She reports directly to the Board of Finance.

Councilman Keith Klain, D-2nd, who has similar experience to Rosasco-Schwartz, said there is a clear difference between an internal and an external auditor “from a bias and objectivity standpoint” and that he therefore supported an external audit.

Rosasco-Schwartz rejected that argument.

“Unfortunately, then, your auditors are not performing under professional standards, because there is a code of conduct which they have to abide,” she said. “They have to maintain independence.”

The exchange prompted Councilman Kevin Shively, D-2nd, to request Chairman Mary Beth Thornton, D-2nd, to call for decorum. The request proved unnecessary as the council moved on, with Majority Leader Jason Marsh, D-3rd, saying his vote had nothing to do with Keegan’s qualifications.

“To me, it’s a question of bandwidth,” he said. “We need to get this done in a timely manner. I would much rather have several persons on this than a single person who also has to serve auditing functions for other departments.”

Minority Leader Carl Massaro, R-3rd, said in reply that the auditing functions consisted of more than a single person.

“Annually when the town audit is conducted, the auditor, who is an outside auditor, looks at the Board of Ed as well,” he said. “So that’s another source of information that would be forthcoming.”