It was with some trepidation that Lisa Linden and her husband, David Rosenblatt, opened the official-looking envelope from the District government two weeks ago. Inside, they found a stern warning: "IMPORTANT. IF YOU DO NOT PAY BACK TAXES, YOUR PROPERTY MAY BE SOLD AT PUBLIC AUCTION."
Linden and Rosenblatt, fearing the loss of their $119,500 condominium in Woodley Park Towers, examined the four-page document and realized the District of Columbia had come after them for delinquent real estate taxes.
A total of one cent.
"I simply could not believe it," said Linden, the press secretary for the Senate Small Business Committee. "It defies all logic, the ludicrousness of it.
"When I called the city and they insisted on getting the penny, it was really, truly outrageous," she said. "The person I talked to was very cavalier. He told me, 'We send out bills for less than a dime all the time.' "
To get its penny, Linden noted that someone in the District government had to punch the relevant tax and market value numbers on the couple's condominium at 2737 Devonshire Place NW into a computer. Moreover, the District had thoughtfully enclosed a return envelope to collect the penny. And then it cost the city government 12.5 cents at the bulk mailing rate to send the bill.
"It's almost a form of harassment," she said. "Is this common practice?"
As it turns out, it is.
Robert L. King, who heads the District's real estate tax office, said the city's hands are tied by a Superior Court decision in the 1970s ordering it, in the interest of fairness for all taxpayers, to send delinquent tax notices to anyone who owes the city money, even if it is only a penny.
"We don't have the same option as a department store to not send the bill," he said.
Moreover, King said that despite the apparent incongruity of spending well over one cent to collect the penny from Linden and Rosenblatt, it actually makes economic sense for the city.
"It would cost us more to pull those bills by hand than to go ahead and have the computer crank them out," he said. "It's all handled automatically."
King said that he has no idea how many delinquent tax bills for pennies have been mailed to D.C. taxpayers, but said that at least three other persons had called officials to question the efficiency of mailing out bills for less than $1.
The tax official said Department of Finance and Revenue officials plan to ask the city Corporation Counsel's office whether it can reprogram its computers to not send out bills for small amounts of money and instead add the delinquent amount to the next regular tax bill.
He said the total amount due on each of the District's 155,000 properties is punched into a computer, which then automatically figures out whether there is any delinquency. In the Linden and Rosenblatt case, their annual tax bill was $1,348.10, and he said it is possible that their mortgage lender may have rounded off a semiannual tax payment to the District and come up a penny short.
The delinquency notice sent to the couple also warned them that if they did not pay the penny by June 30, a 10 percent penalty would be assessed, plus 1 percent interest a month.
"How much is 10 percent of one cent, plus 1 percent of that amount every month?" Linden asked. "We just might owe two cents, come next year."
Meanwhile, Linden said she has yet to pay the bill, small as it is.
"I'm in a quandary," she said. "I make lots of decisions every day and have no trouble making them. The thought of writing a check for a penny and putting a 22-cent stamp on the envelope outraged me. I would be afraid to write a check for a penny. My bank wouldn't know what to do with it. I haven't found the time to go down and pay them a penny."
Nonetheless, taxpayer Linden assured the District, "I'm giving this serious attention."