It was all the computer's fault, District officials said yesterday. And television commentator David Brinkley was only one of about 1,200 District residents who received income tax bills of $2 or less in the first major glitch in D.C.'s heavily promoted tax amnesty program.
Brinkley, in a brief, acerbic commentary on his nationally televised ABC news program Sunday, told an estimated 4.5 million television viewers about the District government's attempt to collect 10 cents from him in back taxes. If he did not pay, the bill had warned, he would be fined $2,137 in penalties and interest.
Brinkley's tweaking of the government bureaucracy brought an immediate response yesterday.
The whole thing was a mistake, said D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue spokeswoman Brendolyn McCarty, a "mathematical audit error." Ordinarily, she said, Brinkley and the others would not have been billed for amounts of less than $2. But someone forgot to tell the government computer that.
"Normally when bills go out, there is a tolerance built into the system that would kick out anything $2 and below," she said. "For some reason, it was not built in."
And in any case, she added, even the 10-cent bill was wrong.
The saga of Brinkley's dime began in April 1985, when the newscaster obtained a six-month extension on his D.C. income tax filing deadline.
By October, when he paid his taxes, he also owed an additional $2,137 in penalties and interest. He paid that, too.
But in late June, Brinkley and thousands of other taxpayers received notices about the new D.C. tax amnesty program that would allow them to pay back taxes with little or no penalty as long as they paid within the three-month period beginning July 1.
Brinkley paid the 10 cents even though he maintained he owed the District government nothing. District officials acknowledge that his bill had been paid last year, but no one knows where the extra dime cropped up and officials cannot account for why the letter threatened him with $2,137 in penalties and interest.
"They will wind up blaming it on the computer," Brinkley said when told of the District government's response. "I knew that. But a computer only puts out whatever you put in it."
McCarty said that after the first round of delinquent tax bills went out in June, her department received complaints. In response, taxpayers were told not to worry about paying the minuscule amounts -- which would amount to less than $2,400 of the $10 million District officials hope to reap from the amnesty program.
The District has mounted an aggressive campaign through television, radio and print advertising and a banner which has been strung across the front of the District Building since the campaign began July 1.
Until July 31, those who owed taxes for any tax period before Nov. 1, 1986, could pay up without fear of penalties or accrued interest. From now until Sept. 30, all penalties will be waived as well as 50 percent of any interest due."But a computer only puts out whatever you put in it."
-- David Brinkley
"The program actually has been going well," McCarty said, noting that her department received 2,000 queries about the program during its first week. "We've had overwhelming response."