Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Best Of The Drifts - Confessions Of A Taxman

Originally published March 8, 2009

Confessions of a Taxman

Why does a libertarian become a tax collector? Because even libertarians need a paycheck. How does a libertarian act as a tax collector? With the belief that tax enforcement is not about punishment but correcting mistakes.

In the days when I still referred to myself as a libertarian instead of an independent, for two years I was employed by the Georgia Department of Labor as a Field Representative (officially an Unemployment Insurance Tax Auditor). I did not miss the irony.

One duty was the collection of the Unemployment Insurance tax. Unlike other taxmen with whom you may be familiar, I did not go after individuals - I went after employers. Employers paid the tax quarterly with the amount based on their total payroll. When they became delinquent, a file came to my desk and I devised the best strategy to obtain the money.

To the frustration of my supervisor, I demurred in the use of the most devastating tools in my arsenal. Restraint and diplomacy became my style. Others who had worked the trade for years shook their heads in disbelief.

I have many war stories from these years, some funny, some sad, but the two I always remember were the strip club and the daycare center.

My assigned territory was a mottled blob of strangeness. It stretched from the strip joints and lingerie modeling establishments on Cheshire Bridge through the financial heart of Buckhead all the way to the doctor's offices around Northside Hospital. It was not unusual for a single trip to take me from a liquor store to a stockbroker's office.

Despite what one might think, the adult establishments were hardly a problem. Other than the Gold Club (the Federales got them before I ever got close), for months I never saw a file on the myriad houses of nudity. Then, one appeared. It was a small bill. They only missed one filing but curiousity (and perhaps more puerile interest) drove me to investigate.

There are few things weirder than a strip club at 2:00 in the afternoon on a weekday. The parking lot was full of trucks and sedans. I was entering the world of the landscapers and salesmen - men who forsake the heat of the day for a dark place covered in booze and skin.

A cocktail waitress approached me and asked if I needed anything. A manager I replied. The man in charge appeared quickly and I showed him the bill. He ushered me to his office and relayed a familiar story.

The club had changed accountants and in the confusion the quarterly filing was misssed. I responded, "It happens all the time. I figured it was something like that since you guys are never a problem".

He agreed, opened the big business checkbook and snapped out the full amount.

As he handed me the check, he said, "It'll never happen again."

I replied, "I bet".

Not too far from the strip joint, a young couple opened a daycare center.

They left high paying engineering jobs because they wanted something for themselves and they loved children.

When their file crossed my desk, my supervisor pointed out that it appeared to be classic case of what he called a "mercy killing". He believed some people did not have what it takes to run a business and the best action we could take was to end the misery. He had a point. They were a new business and those always faced the most danger. They were also horribly behind and experience told me the chances of payment were slim.

It was within my power to begin the process which would result in their closure, but I looked at my supervisor and said, "let me go check them out".

The daycare was in an old building next to an even older apartment complex, but it had a fresh coat of bright yellow paint and flower decals on the door. The owners were not much older than me and it was apparent they were over their heads. When they first opened, they knew a lot about kids but not much about running a business. Of course they were aware of the outstanding taxes - they had dutifully filed every quarter, they just didn't pay. The wife told of the dread they both felt about the day the taxman came and now he was here.

We sat and I heard the familiar story of the sacrifices made, the hard lessons learned and the tiny successes. Some tears were shed but their eyes glinted with the belief they had turned the corner and could still realize their dream. But they had no idea how they would deal with this awful piece of paper I was holding in my hand.

I looked around - noted the clean but obviously second hand furnishings, the gaggle of children playing in the next room and the mother arriving to take her daughter home. I then reached into my bag and pulled out a repayment agreement. We discussed how much they could pay without crippling the business, how long it would take and how I would personally come each month to pick up the check. I warned them that my supervisor's approval was required but I believed I could convince him.

The next day, he rolled his eyes and signed the agreement.

Every month, for one year, I stopped by the daycare and picked up a check. On the last day, they met me at the doors with smiles on their faces, check in hand. They demanded I follow them to the office to see the photocopy they made of their final payment.

In two years as a taxman, I only put one business out of operation and filed less than two dozen liens, yet I was in the top three collectors every quarter.

The strip club and the daycare center and countless others taught me there is a reason tax matters are dealt with in a civil rather than a criminal manner. Most people who get into trouble with the taxman do so through carelessness, biting off more than they can chew or just flat out Murphy's Law. It is the rare bird who intentionally tries to get away with being a cheat.

In this season of much thunder about taxes, who pays them, who doesn't and what should be done about it, saying so and so is a bad person and should be punished is an easy story to sell to a cynical public. But as politicians proudly thump their chests and demand a reckoning, we should remember that behind their simplistic descriptions of ne'er-do-wells may be a daycare center or even a strip club or maybe your neighbor or maybe even you.

The bloodlust and call for scalps are seductive, but we all face the taxman eventually and all should hope their own story is seen for what it is and not just a politician's punchline.

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