City Hall Said I Was a Tax Deadbeat

But I wasn't. Why it's hard to believe Mayor Nutter's pledge to track down "raggedy" non-payers.

Mayor Nutter is in one of those moods again, the one where he’s cranky about the city’s flaws and uses colorful, somewhat overwrought language to show he’s serious, dammit.

The problem this week? Back taxes. Nutter says City Hall is owed $518 million in unpaid taxes going back a decade—about half of it owed in property taxes—including, apparently, overdue bills from heavy hitters like Yuengling Brewery and developer Bart Blatstein. And Mayor Nutter is going to make. them. pay.

“Now there are some other trifling, raggedy people around here, who can actually pay and don’t pay,” Nutter told the city’s media on Monday. “And we’re going to chase their little asses down as hard as possible.”

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I believe the mayor.

Yes, there are probably a number of tax deadbeats out there; this is Philadelphia, after all. But I don’t think Mayor Nutter really knows the size of the problem—despite the precision of numbers like $518 million—nor how much of it is caused not by deadbeats, but by City Hall’s own broken bureaucracy.

Why do I say this? Because last year, the city came after me for unpaid taxes. Taxes that in some cases I didn’t owe, taxes that in other cases I had paid, and taxes that in other cases covered years before I’d even lived or worked in the city. And the city was ready to penalize me tens of thousands of dollars as a result.

Here’s the scenario: I didn’t become a freelance writer until 2010, two years after I moved to Philadelphia. There was, admittedly, an early hiccup with my tax status—I hadn’t realized that I’d have to pay a “business privilege tax” at the outset for the (ahem) privilege of writing essentially the same articles I’d always written as a full-time journalist. But we got it figured out, made our payments, and thought that was that.

Until last year, when I received a subpoena from the city, charging me with failure to pay my business taxes for years and years, going back to 2007. This was confusing for several reasons:

• I didn’t live, work, or even visit Philadelphia for the first time in my life until 2008. What evidence could the city possibly have that I owed taxes before I even stepped foot here?

• Again, I didn’t start freelancing until 2010, and paid the business taxes as soon as I became aware of the requirement. What evidence could the city possibly have that I’d set up shop as a freelancer before that?

• And finally, the city said I hadn’t paid any taxes in a year I’d actually paid taxes. So I went down to my bank, got a copy of the check—imprinted with City Hall’s own number for having processed the transaction—and gave it to authorities. After a couple of phone calls making my case that I’d met the law’s requirements, the city revenue department dropped its case against me. But it was frustrating and angering, a presumption of guilt based on the city’s apparent decision to cast its net wide for deadbeats instead of relying on the evidence at hand, and an apparent inability to track when it has been paid.

It was, in fact, one of the few times I’ve threatened to leave this city since arriving. It’s just a little harder to make a living here than it should be, sometimes, and City Hall is almost always standing in the way.

The kicker? We received our 2013 city tax filing forms this week—along with a note that we didn’t pay our taxes last year. You’ll have to trust me that we did. It appears I’ll have to make another trip to the bank, but it’s possible that Nutter’s $518 million in unpaid taxes includes a chunk of change that I’ve already paid.

Granted, I’m just one person in a city full of taxpayers. But the whole thing makes me suspicious, and much-less interested in hearing Mayor Nutter talk darkly about chasing down “raggedy asses” who owe money. We all know you’re doing that for show, anyway, Mr. Mayor. You’re spending $40 million to upgrade computers and the call center at the revenue department. Get those processes fixed, first, and maybe I’ll get a little crankier about the deadbeats. If they even exist. I’ll need something more than City Hall’s word to believe it.