Monday, September 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

BPT Diary Day 4. Yes, there's really a Day 4.

Note: I’m trying to pay the Business Privilege Taxes I owe, and keeping a diary of my efforts. For the first installment, click here. For the second, click here.

BPT Diary Day 4. Yes, there's really a Day 4.

Note: I’m trying to pay the Business Privilege Taxes I owe, and keeping a diary of my efforts. For the first installment, click here. For the second, click here. 

Day 4: Wednesday April 14 

OK, bear with me. I’ve had a very difficult day trying to give the city money, and I need to figure out how to explain it to you without cursing. Much. 

The woman I spoke to yesterday at the Revenue Department is named Harriett Mitchell, and she does in fact call me back at 9:30 this morning as promised. We have a strange conversation. Ms. Mitchell is extremely polite to me and eager to help, but it seems as though she doesn’t have the authority to do many things without a supervisor’s approval. When I tell her that I owe a small amount of back taxes on freelance money earned in 2007 and 2008 (I checked last night), it monkeywrenches her plan for me. I hear her muttering frightening things like “you might have to call the law department” and “they might have sued you.” She asks to call me back. 

I stress. 

We play phone tag for a bit, and finally catch up at about 1:45, when she delivers the good news that she got approval to re-open my “business,” but before I send in my returns, I need to call the Law Department and tell them, because they sued me when I didn’t file my return for 2005. 

For the record, my “business” earned $0 in 2005. All my income was salary. So the way I see it, the city sued me for $0. 

At the Law Department I speak to a pleasant woman who tells me that my “business” was in fact not closed, but that there would have been no way for Ms. Mitchell to know that because it was a “batch job.” I have no idea what this means. She also says that the city “issued a judgment” against me, but the “writ wasn’t served,” so I’m OK. I have no idea what this means either. At some point she says something about bringing my Federal tax returns down to the Municipal Services Building. I’m intentionally forgetting that. 

The bottom line, the woman says, is that I should be OK as long as I fax her copies of my 2005-2009 returns for the BPT and NPT. 

“Great!” I say. 

Wait. 

“What’s the NPT?” 

Ladies and Gentleman, meet my new friend the Net Profits Tax. There’s no way I’m responsible for paying this too, right? 

The Law Department lady says she can’t answer that sort of question, and that I need to speak to an auditor. She gives me a number for someone at the Tax Preparation unit. 

This is like a damn scavenger hunt. Follow the clues to tax compliance. 

I had actually already called the Tax Preparation Unit with a question about my BPT forms – I wanted to know if I should include my “estimated” payments when I’m paying several years at once. I left a message, but never received a call back. This time, I’m lucky – someone answers the phone. 

Yes, he tells me, I have to pay the NPT. He speculates that the reason I’ve heard so much more about the BPT is that corporations don’t have to pay the NPT, so there’s not as much of a campaign against it. 

How inspiring. 

Let me pause here and ask: Am I crazy? Because it seems an awful lot like the city is making me pay three different taxes on the same exact income. Does someone think I’m being tricked me into believing the tax rate is lower than it is? Because I’m not. I’m just more exasperated, and frankly, thinking harder about the benefits of tax delinquency. 

I make my way back to a PC to print out the NPT forms (remember, the Revenue Department’s website only works on Internet Explorer, which only works with Windows, which I don’t want to download). And here I notice another confounding wrinkle: Apparently, I’m not supposed to just enclose a check with my returns; I’m supposed to send it separately, with a coupon, but the link to the PDF for the coupon is broken …. 

You get the idea. 

If there’s a hero in this story it’s Harriett Mitchell, who really wants to get my issue resolved and calls me back to say that she has re-opened my business (I don’t bother to tell her that the Law Department said it wasn’t closed – as long as we all agree, I figure, I’m happy), and that I can go ahead and send my returns. In about a month, I can follow up with her about late fees and penalties, which she hopes will be waived. Not as much as I hope that, Ms. Mitchell. 

At night, I spend another hour or so filling out NPT forms for the past five years. The forms are despicably incoherent, but because the city gives a substantial NPT credit to people who pay the BPT, the damage is practically nonexistent. 

It seems that I’ve finally convinced Philadelphia to take my money. I just need to look up the address to put on the envelopes with all my paperwork. I click over to the Department of Revenue’s website and … 

Oh damn it. It wants me to download Internet Explorer again. 

Mission Status: Damn it. Damn it all. 

Coming tomorrow: Reflections on a journey into BPT hell.

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About this blog
Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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Holly Otterbein:
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