Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

How it feels to pay the Business Privilege Tax

Well, my BPT and NPT forms and payment are finally in the mail. I want to throw out a couple of observations about this comically unpleasant experience. But first, let’s review how we got here: - On Sunday I realized I needed to pay the BPT, because I made freelance money last year that wasn’t subject to the wage tax. I tried to print the forms off the Revenue Department’s website but couldn’t because the site is only compatible with Internet Explorer. - On Monday I acquired the forms, but didn’t have my city business account number. I called the Revenue Department but didn’t get through. - On Tuesday I got through and learned that my business had been closed, and that I might have to jump through some hoops to pay my taxes. - On Wednesday, over the course of 6,000 phone calls, I was told that my business had not been closed, but that the city had sued me for not filing a BPT return in 2005, when my business earned $0. I also learned that I had to pay the NPT in addition to the BPT. This ultimately didn’t cost much, but it involved more time and paperwork. - On Thursday, I mailed my taxes and began the process of moving out of Philadelphia.

How it feels to pay the Business Privilege Tax

Well, my BPT and NPT forms and payment are finally in the mail. I want to throw out a couple of observations about this comically unpleasant experience. But first, let’s review how we got here: 

  • On Sunday I realized I needed to pay the BPT, because I made freelance money last year that wasn’t subject to the wage tax. I tried to print the forms off the Revenue Department’s website but couldn’t because the site is only compatible with Internet Explorer.
  • On Monday I acquired the forms, but didn’t have my city business account number. I called the Revenue Department but didn’t get through.
  • On Thursday, I mailed my taxes and began the process of moving out of Philadelphia.

Just kidding about that last part. But this experience was atrocious.

A couple of caveats in the city’s defense:

1) Putting aside the question of whether the BPT is too high, the city did not appear to be trying to screw me out of all of my money. The fact of the matter is that I was delinquent with some taxes, and Philadelphia might have either made me pay my business start-up fee a second time or charged big-time penalties (which it still might do, but hopefully not), or both. It did not.

2) The people at the city, especially Harriett Mitchell at the Revenue Department, were all very nice and willing to help.

But it’s a problem that I feel as though I’ve talked to every damn customer service employee in Philadelphia. Every one I talked to could help me with one aspect of my problem, but not another. Is it so outlandish in this day and age to think the Revenue Department could just have employees whose specialty is “taxes”? Who could be reached on one phone number without first talking to someone else at a different phone number? It all seemed depressingly inefficient.

And while we’re here:

  • The forms. Oh my god the forms. Can you write them in English? And put the appendices (labeled A-E) in alphabetical order?
  • Can you not close my business when I don’t file my taxes for a year? (I didn’t file for three, but my business was closed – or almost closed – the first year.) I find it hard to believe this doesn’t happen to lots and lots of freelancers. Sometimes you forget about that $50 check you earned last August.
  • FIX THE WEBSITE PLEASE.

***

There’s a strange emotional component to paying the BPT. You feel like a sucker, like you’re paying it voluntarily. At least I did.

The reason I felt this way, I think, is that not everyone pays it, and the reason not everyone pays it is that it’s obscure and applies to people who don’t think of themselves as businesses. What’s more, the payment process sure feels like it’s designed so that you, the taxpayer, do the great bulk of the work. I am no longer surprised that so many taxpayers in this city just say, “screw it.”

Paying your taxes should feel mandatory, but it should feel mandatory the way that stopping at a red light feels mandatory – not an undue burden. Otherwise citizens get confused and cynical: Some don’t know the rules, others cheat, the ones that are left get angry, and taxpayer confidence in government erodes. And then where are you?

Actually, it sounds kind of like you’re in Philadelphia. What a shame.

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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