Bethany V. Alviano, Johnston’s deputy tax collector, was one of the many tax collectors across the state left responding to hundreds of residents worried about their vehicle registrations last week.
Alviano worked overtime, along with the rest of her office, to respond to Johnston citizens who received a letter from the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles saying they still owe car taxes. The issue, Alviano said, is that some of those people had already paid their bills and residents were worried their car registrations could be in jeopardy.
The situation stems from legislation passed last year that amended the portion of state law regarding registration of motor vehicles. The new language requires the issuance of notices to people who are listed as owing vehicle excise taxes to a municipality.
“So you catch people at home, because they work until 4:30. At least you can give them some sense of ‘OK, I’m all set,’ or ‘You do owe,’” Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena said. “The intent of the law was good, but I think it sounds like the registry didn't get together with all the tax collectors or sent them an email.”
Paul Grimaldi, spokesman for Department of Revenue, said Monday that the department mailed out “thousands” of the letters. He said 13,300 went to Cranston addresses, 900 to Warwick and 6,300 to Johnston. He pointed out that, under legislation approved last year, DMV is required to notify vehicle owners of an active block on their registration for failure to pay the municipal or fire district excise tax.
Indeed, that is the law, but what confused Alviano and other municipal tax collectors is that not all those notified owed taxes. Polisena was also upset with the DMV, saying that no one was notified the letters were being sent.
“And people get nervous. ‘I know I paid the taxes, what’s going on?’ It’s not fair to those people that pay,” Polisena said during an interview last Friday. “You raise their blood pressure for no reason at all, and that’s coming from a nurse. You don’t raise people’s blood pressure unless you have to.”
Alviano said that her department would have planned accordingly if she was provided notice ahead of time. She said she reached one woman at the DMV, whom she did not identify and was not part of the mailing process, who said she “would have never done it the way they did it.”
“They were supposed to wait,” Alviano said. “That’s the whole thing. They were supposed to wait for the new file in May.”
Alviano said that, due to the preponderance of registrations in March, a file of delinquent motor vehicle taxes is sent to the DMV in May. There is also one sent in November.
Grimaldi thought the notices shouldn’t have come as a surprise to municipalities, as the department sent notices in November reminding them to ensure their records were accurate.
Grimaldi said that the blocks could be a result of residents owing taxes on more than one vehicle, or having outstanding taxes in another community prior to moving to another town or city.
“Somebody might have a block across communities … They might have gotten letters from several communities,” he said. Furthermore, he added, “It’s up to municipalities to be aware of what might affect them.”
He said the DMV cannot lift blocks without the direction of the municipality or fire district. This can be done in several ways. The taxpayer can produce a clearance letter from the local tax collector; the tax collector can use an “automated” system to lift the block; or the collector can email the information to the DMV.
Still, things slip through the cracks.
“Some,” Grimaldi suggested, “may be a case of things existing in records for a number of years and never properly cleared out.” He thought some blocks went back more than 10 years and for as long as there is a record.
Might this have been a case where the records lifting prior blocks were not picked up when the DMV implemented a new computer system on July 1, 2017?
Grimaldi thinks not. In preparation to the conversion to the new computer system, all communities were told to update their records as of June 30, 2017, he said.
Daniel Kittredge and John Howell contributed to this report.