Once upon a time, Citizen editor Larry Platt posed a question we’ve thought about ever since: When was the last time you encountered the city bureaucracy and said to yourself, “Wow, what great customer service!”?
So we’ve taken a page from private industry and unleashed a team of mystery shoppers to interact with city service providers and report back on their experiences—the good, the bad and the …costly.
(You can read about all our past experiences here—from calling 311 to get a pothole filled to testing Philadelphia City Council.)
Most recently, we did a deep dive—not entirely by choice—into what it takes to get a small tax issue sorted in the Philadelphia Department of Revenue.
It was April of 2020: time to pay city taxes. And so I did. I mailed off checks for our estimated taxes for 2020, two sets of net-profit taxes, and the school-income tax. I took photos of all four checks, together, before I sent them, just in case. (Hey, this isn’t my first Philly tax-paying rodeo.)
Within a month or so, all of the checks had been processed but one. The school-income tax—a significant amount of money (at least, a significant amount to our family)—hadn’t been cashed, and I was concerned the City hadn’t received it, or had lost it. To be honest, I was even more concerned that I would later be penalized for not having paid it. (Like I said: not my first rodeo.)
So I set about trying to fix whatever went wrong before it turned into a whole big drama.
The steps I took
1. Sometime in mid-May, while we were all in the early throes of Covid-19 and roughly a month after I’d mailed the payment, I call the Department of Revenue. A polite employee tells me everything is behind right now, and I should give it more time before taking further action.
2. I give it more time. The money remains in my account.
3. In late May, I email to communicate the same thing I did on the phone: “We paid the school income tax (S-1) back in April along with three other taxes; all have been processed, except for the S-1. I understand there might be a Covid-related delay, but I’m concerned. Can you please confirm receipt or let me know when you expect the check might be cashed?”
The answer, which came roughly two weeks later: Please be advised that due to limited staffing payment processing may take more time than usual. Unfortunately since the payment was not processed we cannot state whether it was received at this time. Please allow a little more time for the payment to process before placing a Stop Payment.
Okay, fair enough.
4. I wait another week or so, maybe, and give the Revenue Department a call. I tell a very nice Revenue Department rep the situation, and tell her I’m worried about how long a delay it’s been—at this point, going on three months. “Is this delay a normal delay in Covid times?” I ask. “What’s normal anymore?” she says with a laugh. I laugh, too
5. End of June. Time to email again: S-1 tax, not processed, blah blah blah, I know there’s delay but I’m getting increasingly concerned, afraid I’m going to be fined or penalized, blah blah blah.
The answer: According to our records, payment has not posted to the account as of today’s date.
6. I write back immediately: Yes, yes I’m aware it hasn’t posted. This is the problem. I don’t mind waiting, I type, as long as two-plus months is still considered a “normal delay” … but, can you tell me if there is a point at which I should cancel my check and write a new one? How long should I wait before I do that? Also, could we please get it on the record that we did, in fact, pay on time? I don’t want to be penalized (and charged) for lateness.
The answer: We can not advise you on cancelling payment. If you cancel payment and provide documentation on stop payment and honor original payment date.
7. Deeper sigh. I write back: “I’m not trying to be difficult here, but looking for real help: Can you please advise on how long a taxpayer should wait on the city processing a check before I can assume that I need to take further action?” I write something angry, and then delete it, and go with this instead: “Is two months on par with the rest of the delays people are experiencing or does it seem like perhaps something is amiss?”
The answer: I understand, but I cannot give a time frame. Payments are processed through payment and processing.
8. Head explodes. I give up for a while.
9. Early September. Check has not been processed. I email again, mention that I’ve spoken to or written to about half a dozen people inside the Revenue Department over the summer, and that basically everyone told me to sit tight and wait … but five months on, I was pretty sure the check was lost, and that the City would eventually ding me for nonpayment. I’d prefer to not cancel the check and start over—that costs money—but would do so, if necessary. Would they please (please, please) advise?
The answer: We ask you forward the front and back copy of the check/s issued or any electronic payment confirmation information for review. If the payment was made thru money order you must place a tracer on the money order and forward results to our offices for further review and adjustment.
10. WTF. WTF. WTF.
11. I write back and tell them that while I did happen to take a picture of all four checks I sent last April—and had attached said photo, so they could see it—I didn’t take a photo of the back of the check. And of course, I don’t have a photo of the check from the bank BECAUSE THE CHECK HAS NOT BEEN PROCESSED. And the reason I haven’t already cancelled the payment is because that costs money, and because I can’t get anyone in Revenue who will tell me that’s what I should do. It seems apparent now that the check is lost. And no matter what happens, I would like NOT to be charged late fees for money I paid 6 months ago.
The answer: We have not received the 2019 SIT Return. If the check was not processed please place a stop payment on it and issue a new check. Once the check is processed and we receive a copy of the Stop Payment we will adjust the account.
12. Finally. I pay $25 to stop payment on the check. I keep the records.
13. I take my sweet time writing a new check, not feeling super enthused to send the city my money again. I do, though, write a new one and mail it off sometime around the end of 2020. This time, I send it certified.
14. End of January, the check is processed. We paid our taxes! Hallelujah! My husband and I high-five.
15. Fast-forward to early March. There’s some mail from the Revenue Department. It is … wait for it …a delinquent tax bill for the school-income tax. About $330, $104 of which is interest and $225, penalty.
16. Can we just move to another city?
17. Back to email my old frenemies at the Revenue Department: “Hi, it’s me again, you just sent us a bill, and so on, and so forth, and I have proof, and here are the pictures, and here is the stop-payment receipt, and I seriously cannot be expected to pay this bill, thank you so much.”
The answer: Thank you for sending the information. The interest/penalty was removed. No balance.
Time spent: A handful of hours, but months and months of mental energy.
Result: Eventual success in … paying my own taxes without being fined or penalized.
Final thoughts: Well, I don’t know if I’d deem this “a whole big drama” of the sort I was trying to avoid from the start, but it was a great deal more dramatic than I would prefer my tax-paying processes to be. And I’m not alone, here: Another editor here at The Citizen is working through a tax “misunderstanding” as I write this. Anecdotally, time-consuming tax drama in Philly is not a particularly rare occurrence, Covid times or no. In a city where we desperately need people to pay their taxes, we should focus on making that as easy and efficient as possible.
Lightning bolt rating: ⚡️½
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