Pulse: City Life: Death & Taxes

When it comes to the ­incompetence of city government, not even Benjamin Franklin is spared

The trial of Benjamin Franklin began with a knock at the door. He had just finished supper with his wife of 41 years and was preparing to retire to bed when he heard it, three loud raps. Who could it be? He turned from his TV and shuffled to the door of his Newtown Square home.

The man outside had a badge and a gun. He was looking for Dean Bennett, an actor who makes his living playing Benjamin Franklin everywhere from the White House to the cover of this magazine. The man with the gun said Bennett owed the City of Philadelphia a few hundred dollars in back taxes. He was there to collect.

“Yes, I’m Dean Bennett,” Benjamin Franklin said. “But there must be some mistake. I have an accountant who pays my city taxes every year.”
That was five years ago. Since then, 73-year-old Bennett has produced cancelled checks, stood in countless lines, and even marched down to the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall in full Franklinalia, fruitlessly attempting to correct the city’s records. Yes, he paid $200 for a Business Privilege License, back in 1999. No, no more than a quarter of his income is made inside the city, and the taxes are already paid. No, he already filed for 2001 and 2002, a week early, even. But still the letters kept coming, saying he hadn’t paid what he owed, and threatening legal action.

The matter came to a head this January, when a second constable appeared at the door and served Bennett with an order to appear in court. Bennett came down with pneumonia and failed to show. The court entered a default judgment against him for $10,074. In April, after presenting the city’s collection agency with records of his back tax payments—many of which he futilely showed to municipal clerks earlier in his saga — Bennett agreed to pay $224, and had the rest of the judgment dismissed.

The trial of Benjamin Franklin was over — well, almost. According to Bennett’s brother, the city’s Revenue Department cashed his check in April, but the Law Department still shows him to be delinquent. The Revenue Collection Bureau, a private collection agency hired by the city, said it has nothing to do with keeping the records of who has paid and who hasn’t. That’s the Revenue Department’s job. A spokeswoman for the Revenue Department said she wasn’t familiar with Bennett’s case. Beverly Jackson, Bennett’s main contact at the Law Department, said she was unable to comment, either.

“Everyone is anonymous in that city,” says Bennett’s brother Gary, who’s accumulated a three-inch-thick manila folder of documents relating to Dean’s case. “Nobody’s accountable.”