Dept. of Finance and Rigmarole

Colbert I. King

Thursday, March 06, 1997; Page A20

Last weekend the terrifying, error-prone D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue (DFR) literally scared thousands of residents, including senior citizens, half to death. These unsuspecting taxpayers were mistakenly sent whopping real property tax increases for property on which tax rates have not been increased and on which assessments are frozen. Besieged by an understandably upset and angry crowd of homeowners on Monday morning, embarrassed agency officials in effect said, "Oops, so sorry." In this case, sorry is not good enough.

The public has reason to be sick and tired of the department's colossal goofs. Every year brings a new horror story about some bonehead error by the city's tax officials. If the department isn't misapplying or misreading regulations, it's miscalculating tax bills. Either way, count on DFR to make a blunder. And each round of bloopers brings the same response: abject apologies, pledges to fix the problem so that it will never recur, only to be followed by a resumption of business as usual. This time, the department revoked the homestead and senior-citizen exemptions of as many as 5,000 homeowners and sent them increased tax bills without determining whether they still qualified for the exemptions. Lawrence Berman -- a lawyer from Dupont Circle who also was socked with a heftier bill -- said, "The bureaucracy doesn't treat you as though they want you to be here." Mr. Berman was speaking for more than himself.

Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, who has summarily fired hundreds of workers employed in the city's financial "cluster" -- while handing out eye-popping bonuses to his top staff -- has become the latest in a line of department leaders to offer the now-familiar mea culpa. While explaining that this current problem stemmed from a well-intentioned but poorly planned and executed anti-fraud effort, Mr. Williams acknowledged that the fiasco is of his department's own making.

This time, however, blame can't be placed exclusively on antiquated machines, outmoded procedures or poorly trained workers. The decision summarily to pull the plug on taxpayers was not made in the bowels of the bureaucracy. It was supported at a senior level. Besides, as Mr. Williams said, "A mistake is still a mistake, and it has to be corrected." But that's what they always say. Everyone's heard enough of that. It's what they do that counts.

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