Fauquier County Office of Racketeering
The O Pine

 Related Pages
 Reciprocal Links

We recommend Internet Explorer set to 1024x768.

© 2002 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

And they wonder why people live in remote Montana cabins.
If you had a dispute with your ISP over the amount billed for internet service -- not because you're a goofball who isn't willing to pay bills, but because you think you've been mistakenly overcharged -- how long do you expect to spend settling the dispute? Twenty minutes composing a letter? Ten minutes on the phone talking to a service representative? Whatever, you probably don't expect to spend ten months making calls, writing letters, and receiving penalties, interest, and threats of legal action against you, just for questioning a charge that amounts to dinner for two at a fast-food joint.

And why would you? Businesses realize that small disputes can be settled quickly, with the business getting the correct amount owed and the customer going away satisfied that he is being treated fairly. This is a critical difference between the way business looks at revenue and the way government looks at revenue. Governments generally don't go out of business; therefore, apparently, they feel no particular obligation to take a moment to explain anything to taxpayers, even when a taxpayer repeatedly asks for a simple explanation for the reasoning behind a fairly straightforward assessment. Keep asking too long and they'll drag you to court, still without an explanation.

These are the civic lessons I learned from the Fauquier County government in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In Fauquier County, the difference between asking for an explanation for a tax assessment and tax-dodging is nil. Both are treated as a criminal issue. Before I provide the back story, I must admit that I finally caved in and paid the taxes, penalties, and interest -- the cost of travelling to Virginia to dispute the charges in court far exceeded the charges themselves. And when the nice white-coated people ask me how I feel about this, I'll ponder thoughtfully for a moment before saying something like, "It makes me feel like the county treasurer's office is run by a pack of crack-happy spider monkeys who, when faced with a new stimulus, lash out hysterically until the stimulus goes away, so they can settle back into their delirious stupor without further disturbance."

The problem basically stemmed from the fact that I sold a bunch of vehicles when I moved out of Virginia, but it took me a while to sell some of them. The reason this caused a tax problem is that Virginia is one of those stone-age states that charges a personal property tax on vehicles, based on their value and prorated when the vehicle does not spend a full year in the state. Cleverly, the state Department of Motor Vehicles determines how long a vehicle is in the state, whereas the county treasurer assesses the tax. Changing the system so that the DMV also collects the property tax, then forwards the money internally to the counties, would have prevented the snafu I experienced. Even simply improving the lines of communication between agencies would have sufficed.

I did not dispute most of my 2001 personal property tax bill, so I entered a couple of corrections in the area set aside for making corrections, then waited for a corrected bill to arrive. When I got my new bill -- now informing me that it was past due -- there was no change! "What the hell is the corrections box for," I mused, "if they don't accept the corrections?"

So I called in late January.

"Hello, I need to make some corrections to my personal property tax bill."
"How can I help you?"
"The trailer you have listed, I sold that with the house."
"There's no record of a transfer."
"There's nothing I can do about that; I left it in the yard and gave the owner a signed title. I can't force them to turn in the paperwork."
"Also, I sold the 1940 Chrysler in mid-October."
"Do your have a bill of sale?"
"Of course not. What do I need a bill of sale for? The new owner has the bill of sale."
"We'll need to hear from the DMV that its registration has been cancelled."
"It wasn't registered. It didn't run."
"Then we'll need a letter from your insurance company showing the date it was no longer insured."
"It didn't run -- it was never insured!"
"Finally, I sold the 1995 Cadillac on December 5, not December 31."
"The DMV records don't show a sale."
"I sold it to a guy in Maryland. The DMV must not have updated their records yet."
"Well, we need to hear from the DMV."
"So you want me to call the DMV, tell them I sold the car, so they can tell you I sold the car? Why can't I just tell you I sold the car?"
"We need to hear from the DMV."
"Right. You've been a lot of help. Bye."
I figured they'd get the trailer and the Chrysler straightened out, and Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration would inform Virginia's DMV about the registration change automatically. In March, I learned two valuable lessons about the government:

1. They never get things straightened out on their own.
2. Expecting two border states who share one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas to exchange something as simple and common as vehicle registration information is like expecting to bump into George Washington having tea at Mount Vernon.

My new bill was nearly identical to my last two bills, with the exception of more penalty fees. I decided to try putting my complaint in writing. They replied with a form letter explaining what a bad person I was for trying to dodge my taxes.

In June, I got my 2002 assessment along with another reminder about my 2001 assessment. At this point I was suffering from just a bit of frustration -- what possible reason could there be that six months after my first inquiry there was still no resolution to a pitiful, minor question about a tax assessment?

I paid the 2002 assessment because I had no dispute with it. Then I called the county again about the 2001 assessment. The conversation could basically be summed up with "talk to the DMV, not us." So I did.

Five minutes on the phone with a helpful woman at the DMV corrected every record I had on file with them. Virginia's DMV knows a thing or two about taxpayer assistance. They should be running the whole state.

I figured that, since all along the county had been telling me to talk to the DMV, everything should be fine now. In July, I learned another valuable lesson about government:

3. Doing what they tell you to do to solve the problem won't necessarily solve the problem.

This lesson came about by way of a notice informing me that my payment on 2002 taxes had been applied to my 2001 taxes, since I hadn't paid them yet. Never mind that the 2001 taxes were in dispute -- as far as they were concerned, there was no dispute; I was just a deadbeat!

The next notice I received continued to list the same old disputed assessments along with more and more penalties and interest, including penalties and interest against the 2002 taxes. Their system said I hadn't paid them for 2002 -- I'd made a payment on my delinquent 2001 taxes, nothing more.

It's hard to express how frustrating it is to be stonewalled for seven months over a simple correction regarding the sale dates of two cars and a trailer, charged interest and penalties while waiting for your correction, then having faithfully-paid taxes redirected to the disputed amount, and then getting charged interest and penalties against the faithfully-paid taxes!

I tried anyway. I composed a letter that explained three things in large bold type: that I no longer own any property in Virginia; that I had no intention of paying the 2001 taxes until I was provided with an explanation for the amount assessed; and that I did not recognize their interest and penalties as they would never have been charged if the county had provided an explanation in a timely manner. I sent the letter directly to the Office of the Treasurer, Elizabeth A. Ledgerdon, and forwarded copies to Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter and Senator H. Russell Potts, Jr.; I never heard back from any of these three, possibly because I am (thankfully) no longer one of their constituents.

But that's not to say I didn't get any response at all. Finally, in October, Commissioner of the Revenue Ross D'Urso sent an actual letter with actual hand-applied ink in the signature -- this was no form letter. In it, he carefully explained the cause of each assessment. The cause was silly: they couldn't accept DMV record changes submitted after the end of the tax year. It's a dumb rule, but one I could live with. So why did it take ten months to provide that explanation? Why couldn't they just say so from the start? Why did they make me jump through hoops with insurance and DMV records if they weren't going to accept it anyway? My own theory goes back to the spider monkeys.

Now, ten months in, I've grudgingly accepted the county's assessment, but I was still faced with ten months' worth of interest and penalties caused specifically because they wrote their explanatory letter in October instead of in January when I first asked. At this point it was clear that they intended to stonewall themselves right into court, so I had to decide whether it was worth travelling to Virginia to battle in court over $26.26. I wrestled with doing what's right versus what it'd cost me to do what's right, and dejectedly concluded that I wasn't likely to recover my expenses. The court battle would be a costly stand over a pitiful amount of money. I paid the charges under protest and sent a grievance to the state attorney general.

I doubt I'll ever see my $26.26 back. I just hope they spend my little gift to the treasury on primate rehabilitation.