Crying In the Tax Office

It’s strange how some things that shouldn’t hit hard do, and others that should don’t appear to. Maybe it’s a matter of expectations or how much reserve strength you have. Sometimes you just can’t really figure out why you react in a particular way. I didn’t cry when the house burned. On the drive home I got a little lump in my throat that wound up in a tingle at my jaws and the impulse started. The tears welled up a little, but they didn’t actually form.

My experience in the Cobb County tax office wasn’t like that. When it was over I was stunned, and I wasn’t wondering why. I waited two months to write this article because I didn’t want to say what I would have said if I had written it when it was fresh, and I’ve waited even longer to edit and publish it.

The house burned just over two weeks before my property taxes were due. I couldn’t remember if it was billed in advance or arrears and didn’t know the effect of a total loss on the evaluation, so I dropped by promptly to get a new, accurate bill and pay it.

The first trip wasn’t disturbing. They directed me to the assessor’s office and a tall slim man with a kind demeanor came out to talk to me at a low counter. He was really proud that someone in his office had noticed the front-page article about my house fire and the file had already been updated to show the loss. He was very sympathetic. I told him I appreciated that, but needed to stay in functional mode. He caught my meaning and then he stuck only to facts.

The value I would pay taxes on was not prorated in any way for the loss. It was based on the valuation of my property on the previous January 1st. I  checked because I hoped for something more reflective of the situation, but expected exactly the answer I got and I moved on to the next thing.

I asked “How do I pay?” He continued to politely repeat an explanation on WHY I had to pay a full year’s tax rather than to answer what I had asked. I said “I need a bill.” He looked at me quizzically. “My bill burned. It was in the house”

He said “Oh, I’m not sure…just a minute”, went away for a few minutes and came back with a bill. I asked if the area I had passed around the corner was the right place to go. Then he said something I knew I shouldn’t have listened to. He told me I didn’t need to worry about paying it then, I could just stick it in the mail by the 15th. He was trying to be nice, but I regret taking his advice.

I had the check in an envelope days ahead of the due date, but couldn’t remember where I had put my new stamps. The hotel room was disorganized. Then I wasn’t near a post office when I was thinking about it. The whole thing had been demoted on my mental checklist because I had partially taken care of what needed to be done and also because other things came to the forefront.

On the actual due date I was exhausted from having to think about so many different things that were no longer static in my life. I had reached the point of being overwhelmed and realized that I wasn’t driving well. I had, in fact, just driven in circles thinking about different things at different intersections when I remembered the bill and realized the post office had closed. It was a half hour drive to the after hours post office where I could get the golden postmark, but I needed to get out from behind the wheel or there might be more insurance claims for me to deal with, or worse. I mistakenly thought there must be some small period of grace and opted for the safer choice.

That turned out to be a painful overestimation of reasonableness.

The penalty bill was sent so fast that I wondered how it was even possible. I couldn’t figure out why it looked like I had under paid the bill, but I didn’t spend too much time studying it and I wasn’t in a huge hurry to stop by again to request that they forgive the penalty. I expected they would. The full payment had been mailed a mere 8 hours after the required postmark and the mitigating factors were understandable.

Had I figured out that they paid the penalty with funds I directed toward a tax payment and shorted my actual tax payment by the amount of the penalty, I would have also realized the implications of a policy like that and I might have at least have had some inkling of what I was about to experience.

I went back to the tax office and explained my abbreviated story to the clerk in the payment window and asked if the penalty could be forgiven. She started quietly repeating every trite absolution from responsibility that exists. She started with “Just doing my job” went through “The computer system won’t allow it.” and kept right on going, but part of what disturbed me was the thinly veiled power rush that lit her eyes. She told me some people had paid several times as much in penalties. Then totally confused me when she said “Just pay the 20 dollars.” That was much less than the penalty and not evenly divisible into it either.

“What?” I asked.

“Well you’re asking for hardship aren’t you? Make payments.” (something I can only see as an opportunity to pay an interest rate that resembles usury accompanied by multiple additional opportunities to repeat missing a postmark by a whisper, and earn additional unreasonable penalties).

“No, I’m not asking for payments. I can pay my bills. I’m asking not to be charged $150 for being eight hours late to the post office.” I was asking for humanity.

I had my checkbook out and had started to write several times, but stopped because she kept on. She seemed to be taunting me. It was the set of her jaw, the line of her brow and the fire in her eyes. I kept stopping to look at her. She said “It’s not like I get to keep the money.” Why would she keep going while I was actually writing out the payment? Why would she spontaneously deny a bizarre misconception?

I asked to speak to her manager.

“Oh, you want to take it there? We can take it there.” Nodding a challenge at me. How was it that she felt challenged by someone who had both hands busy writing a check?

“Yes. I’d like to speak to your manager”

“All right, we’ll take it there.”

I was shown to a small room with a partial glass wall . The clerk spent more time prepping the manager to see me than I had spent speaking with her in the first place. The manager came in. I told her briefly why I had asked to speak to her, she said to me “Well I’m sorry you FELT it that way.” She talked about how “unlike her” it was to do anything inappropriate and asked me if I would like for the clerk to apologize to me. I declined.

The manager explained to me that the penalty could not be forgiven because “I had already paid it”. The tax commissioner’s policy is to pay the penalty with funds that I had actually directed to pay my tax bill. What I actually still owed, she said, was taxes in arrears.

I wasn’t sure that was even legal. The full implication of what it meant affected my breathing. Unpaid taxes make me subject to streamlined, non-judicial foreclosure. The distinction was a matter of choices and technicalities that were very deliberately policy (and still reversible, as all policy is in a democracy).

The likelihood that mail delivery might be sketchy when the house behind the mailbox had become a charred shell of smouldering remains increases the odds of delivery issues, mail tampering or any number of other ways I might fail to receive a bill that I never expected. There was no compassion or even reasonable care to the situation that the Cobb Assessor’s office had put me in. I was a mere missed letter away from being blindsided by a non-judicial foreclosure on everything I had left.

When I told her that I had made responsible effort to acquire and pay the bill under difficult conditions she asked me why I hadn’t paid the bill when I received it. I told her it was not my habit to pay bills months in advance and I couldn’t know that my house would burn down. She made it seem like everyone should know that their house could burn down and they should, in fact, pay months early. It never occurred to me to even mention the employee who had encouraged me to put off the payment, much less blame him. I was now crying in public. I felt helpless, at risk from a government that was supposed to protect the public good, and at that moment I wanted out of Cobb County. Badly and Forever.

I don’t mind paying for the public schools that brought me to the home I chose by school district, the infrastructure that brings new business or any number of things I have no choice about. And I paid my taxes. But knowing that they deliberately set things up in a way that would foreclose on what remains of my property for an eight-hour delay was the most defeating thing that I have felt in some time.

Consider this. What I was too emotional to remember or report my visit to the tax office accurately. I was stressed. It’s possible. What if that manager wasn’t using a particularly vile form of condescension combined with bullying when she suggested that I should have paid my bill months before it was due. Maybe I “felt” the behavior of that clerk who seemed to get perverse pleasure in the pretense of power that went with her bottom rung position into existence. I did after all actually break down in tears in the office, wait months before attempting to write about it, and actually cry again when I did write.

The thing I’m definitely not wrong about is that when my payment was postmarked on the 16th instead of the 15th, they immediately assessed a penalty that they deducted from my tax payment and told me that I had unpaid taxes.

I’m glad my insurance adjuster told me not to put in a change of address until some other important mail had come. She said sometimes these situations cause things to get lost or delayed. I’m glad the USPS continued to deliver to mailbox that clearly had no home or residents. I’m glad that no one took my mail in my absence and I’m glad that I didn’t wait any longer than I did to go ask for what I thought was somewhere between common courtesy and human decency. Because if any of those things hadn’t happened, the tax office would have advertised in a paper I had no reason to monitor about a debt I would not have known I owed to take property I didn’t know was at risk over a tax bill that was paid in full after an eight hour delay.

Of course, there is a redemption period. IF I had found out during the redemption period when remedy is allowed, I could get my property back, by paying more fees, penalties, special assessments, their advertising costs and a percentage interest. I wonder just how many more tax office employees I would encounter, what the eventual penalties and fees could add up to and how long it all might take… if I even found out that it had happened within the time period under which I am allowed remedy.

And, the reason all of this would have happened would be because I had a really rotten couple of weeks, listened to a government employee, became exhausted and didn’t judge myself safe to drive on one particular night and overestimated my government.

Policies are changeable though. I hope that this one comes to be seen for the excessive harshness that it represents and gets amended.