Friday, August 28, 2015

My Business Privilege Tax diary

This week, I’m engaging in some “participatory journalism.” I’m paying the Business Privilege Tax.

My Business Privilege Tax diary

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This week, I’m engaging in some “participatory journalism.” I’m paying the Business Privilege Tax.

I’m probably not the type of person you associate with paying the BPT. Heck, I’m not the type of person I associate with paying the BPT. I don’t own a business in the traditional sense. But since I’m a self-employed person (I’m a freelancer), I have to pony up.

This actually won’t be my first time. Back in 2004, I earned about $1,000 freelancing, and was surprised to learn that I had become a business in the city’s eyes. Before paying the BPT, though, I had to pay a $250.00 start-up fee. What if I had earned less than $250.00? I called up the Department of Revenue and asked. I was promptly warned that if I dared not pay the BPT, the city would hunt me down and punish me.

So I paid the fee, started my “business,” and paid the tax – then forgot about it again until this Sunday evening, when it hit me like a ton of expensive bricks: “Crap, I became a freelancer last year. I have to pay the BPT.”

Since the BPT is the city’s most notoriously complicated, profoundly unpopular tax, I thought I'd keep a diary of my attempt to pay it. .

Day 1: Sunday, April 11

Upon realizing that I need to pay the BPT, I visit www.phila.gov and click on the helpful “Pay and File Taxes” link on the left-hand side of the site. I get a pop-up informing me that the Department of Revenue’s software is only compatible with Internet Explorer – do I want to download it? I say yes. I get another pop-up telling me that I first need to download Windows, which I don’t want to do on my Mac laptop. Mission Status: No Progress.

Day 2: Monday, April 12

I find a PC and use Explorer to download copies of the BPT form, the BPT “EZ” form, and the “Change Form,” (because I changed addresses). I think I can use the EZ form – the extended form is for people who conducted business both inside and outside of Philadelphia, from what I can tell.

The first thing I see on the EZ form is a line asking for my city tax account number.

Now, I am very impressed with myself for filing away copies of the form I filled out and the $250.00 check I wrote to start my “business” back in 2005, but I don’t have any documentation from the city acknowledging receipt of those things or giving me an account number (I have no recollection of whether I ever received said documentation; I may have, but I don’t have it now). This helps me realize that my "business" didn't have any contact with the city between 2005 and 2008, though I think I earned some small amount of money freelancing during that period. I'm probably going to have to pay back taxes. Well, one thing at a time.

There doesn’t appear to be any place to look up your account number on the Revenue Department’s website, so I call. On my first call, at about 2:00 p.m., I’m placed on hold for 15 minutes before the system cuts me off for no apparent reason. My second call, a half hour later, I abandon after 5 minutes because I have to be somewhere. The third time I call, at about 4:50, the phone just rings and rings.

Mission Status: Minor Progress.

Stay tuned…

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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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