The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gene Weingarten: I somehow owed D.C. $24,000. But not so fast!

(Alex Fine/for The Washington Post)

I discovered I was a felon a few weeks ago when I received a snail-mail letter from the government of the District of Columbia, warning me that it was going to report me to a debt-collection agency and seize all my assets because of unpaid taxes, and that I am a stinking wad of crap. I am summarizing that last bit, but if you read the letter I got, it is pretty much on the mark.

This was not a minor matter. The government of the District of Columbia said I owed ... $21,000 for the year 2019. And my debt was growing daily. It had risen to $24,000 because of penalties owing to my failure to pay, owing to the unfortunate wad-crap situation.

I decided, instantly, that I was guilty. That is often my initial assumption when I am accused of financial ineptitude. I am not good with money. I am entirely capable of innocently forgetting to pay things. I seldom consult my bank account, and when I absolutely have to — say, when standing at an ATM, and in return for withdrawing $100 it insists on showing me my balance — I avert my eyes in a quasi-epileptic twitch, and cover the screen with a hand, because that unwanted information causes me extreme anxiety: If it is lower than I think it should be, I feel I am being robbed by some invisible, untraceable entity. If it is higher than I think it should be, I assume a big bill I have paid has been rejected because of some terrible failure on my part, or that I have forgotten to pay it entirely. Whenever I get one of those inane email notices about incremental changes in my credit rating, which arrive nearly daily, I tense up. I assume the news is always bad. I assume that in the future I will be forced to pay cash, up front, for a Milky Way.

So, I accepted that I somehow owed the District of Columbia $24,000. But not so fast! A couple of days later, while I was still anguishing over the initial letter, I got another letter saying my debt to D.C. had increased to $27,283.87, because of additional penalties owing to my insufferable delay. At this point, I began assessing what “assets” the government could seize, and realized I have none to speak of. I rent my home from my daughter, who is not, thank heaven, responsible for my debts. My car is a 13-year-old gasping hunk of garbage with a fender affixed by duct tape. I do own a dog. She is almost 15 years old and has to be let out to pee every day at 4 a.m. If you want that responsibility, District of Columbia, more power to you. Still, there is that whole credit-rating thing.

And that’s when I started thinking coherently. None of this made sense. I pay my taxes, in advance, four times a year, because I am technically self-employed. (I am a horrible employer but a pretty good employee.) I hire a guy named Mike to make sure I don’t forget. I called Mike. He said, yeah, I had paid my D.C. tax bill all through the previous year. I just needed to prove it because the city of Washington is notoriously incompetent and always assumes it is right.

So I contacted my bank. It was delighted to hear from me after all these years. It found the canceled checks. Yep. I had paid it all. The city had the money. In fact, I had overpaid. There is cash that should be coming back to me. The city of Washington had made a minor $31,000 mistake.

Now, I know what you are thinking: You are thinking, wait a minute! What if they do that all the time to people, and what if the amount is usually not that high, and people assume the city is right and just ... pay it? Wouldn’t that add up to millions of dollars in government fraud every year, a fraud that some lawyer, somewhere, should expose through a class-action suit against an incompetent and possibly rapacious municipality on behalf of overburdened and abused taxpayers?

Well, that’s just you, thinking. I was simply operating out of self-interest. I wanted the city to leave me alone. So I wrote them a letter, including copies of the canceled checks. I got an email back from a city accountant in charge of my “case.” She informed me that I owed the money, and they were coming after me, and that if I didn’t owe the money, I needed to provide proof, the exact proof I had just provided in my letter, the one to which she was responding. Her letter was not of the most encouraging sort, in the sense that I did not feel I was dealing with a sophisticated genius whom I could count on for excellence in responsive public service. Here is a verbatim line from it: “Of the return show $22,510 2019 for estimated payment, we have no record of payment this what created a bill.”

I replied, pointing out, politely, that they are idiots. Weeks have gone by with no answer. To the city of Washington, I hereby make the following representation: “Here is my response this what created a column.”

Email Gene Weingarten at gene.weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at wapo.st/magazine.

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