Sunday, May 2, 2010

This time it's local. Our taxes at work, or sleeping on the job.

Durham I love you, but you got to step up your game.

I've had a couple of interactions in the past few weeks that confirm those stereotypes where competence isn't the number one goal of government. Maybe that wouldn't be a problem if there were another obvious and important goal.

Number one: Durham county keeps forgetting the reproductive capacity of my cats and tries to charge me $150 for the honor of owning them.  (1a Durham county cares about and keeps records on the reproductive capacity of our cats).

Number two: A city employee decided to estimate water usage instead of reading the meters.  Four months later, the city caught him, without announcing any form of prosecution and even protecting his privacy.

Situation 1: Cat Fertility
First, friends ask, why do they tax cats at all?  Because they can.  Cable Internet doesn't get taxed because Youtube is a public service.  But, my indoor cats suck city services like they slurp water from open toilets, and a few hundred dollars in property taxes a month can't be expected to cover those services. $75 is the annual charge for reproductively enabled animals, so $10 a year for neutered pets seems like a bargain.

This is the second instance in which the county tax collector has lost its documentation that our cats are spayed.  The first time, I had to find proof and fax it to them. They admitted data had been lost when the tax duty was transferred from the animal people to the tax people.  Oops.  They were friendly, but their belief that it was my duty to repair their mistake was bizarre, bizarre enough to not make it worth challenging.  You don't argue with the homeless guy who thinks he is Napoleon. You just ask him how the latest battle is going.

But the second time, enough was enough:

Bill 5553289
Owner ID 5555845 
Animal ID A555756
The cat in question is spayed.  Examing receipt 5556153 on your own web site will show the same cat was spayed last year. We have not performed any reproductive surgery to bring her kitten producing abilities back to life.  She is available for inspection to confirm this claim.  She is very friendly, especially if you bring treats.
This is the second time I have had to address your loss of data on a cat.  Please fix your systems. Please mark our cat Carolina as spayed and resubmit a bill.  Also subtract $5 from the $10 tax to reflect the value of my time the last two times I have had to address this issue.

I  wrote them Friday.  We'll see what happens.

Situation 2: The Hope of A Good Toilet Valve

I installed new toilet valves in all three toilets to correct some dripping issues. A little dripping can use a lot of water. One involved some drilling upside in a confined space for several minutes to get a stuck screw undone.  So when I got a bill that covered two months of water usage, and it asked for only $30, I was overjoyed to know that my clumsy projects had accomplished something.  I was saving money and saving the city from another drought.  I was a good citizen.  My toilets were good citizens.  Each flush was a source of pride.

Then a letter from the city arrived.
It has recently come to our attention that water meters in some of our districts may have been misread, resulting in lower or higher than usual or water bills.

No explanation was given on why my hopes were being dashed, but I knew, in my heart, that my achievements had been a lie.  But the citizenship of my toilets was now in question.  My cynicism lead me to recall a story from our friend Lori, a nurse.  She ran into a nursing assistant at a certain prominent hospital (whose name may be present in the title of a show with a car called the General Lee) who was casually touching a patient  and then writing down a number.  It was supposed to be a pulse reading.  The assistant just decided that it was less effort to write down a random number than taking 10 seconds to read a pulse.   I didn't know if a meter reader had just decided to guess, but the lack of an explanation made me suspicious.

Then Sarah forwarded an email from a neighborhood group with information on the water problem, including

So laziness was the culprit.  If this were a business, they would be embarrassed and not make people pay the higher (if accurate) bills.  But alas.  To have replaced toilet valves and lost is better than to have never replaced at all.

I think I'm in with Shemeecka [sic] from the web story, who now has to pay higher bills to cover the water not previously billed.  Lower bills while the fraud was on helped keep it going. I was perplexed, but I wasn't going to call in, waste my time, and wade through departments to get an answer when the bill was in my favor.  Now, if he had done it the other way, people would have been "outraged" at the beginning.

The fraud prevention technique for the city would have involved an advanced statistical technique called Microsoft Excel (do you pronounce ex-seal or x-ull?) This program averages and totals so you can see that one route increased usage 5% while another decreased 38%. You can even compare the same route year to year if you employ the super-happy-plus version with multiple tabs.

The employee is apparently protected by privacy laws.  I don't think that should protect him from prosecution. Fraud is fraud and abuse of the public trust is a big deal. And failing to manage employees should be a big deal for the water department.

In protest to lower my water bill, I shower and wash my clothes using water from fire hydrants. If you hear water flowing from your hydrant, just look away. It's not embarrassing to me; it's embarrassing to the man, man.


mitch said...

Please post an update once you hear a reply back to your email! Hopefully the recipient is not an automaton and will enjoy the levity. Or they might flag you as a suspected "Harry Tuttle" and send Michael Palin to inspect your cat.

As for the water bill issue... ouch. But you should have seen it coming, with a City Manager named Voorhees, it must be friday the 13th every day.

Our borough is smoke-testing the sewer lines for the second spring in a row. They just know in their heart of hearts that there are some retirees on fixed incomes who slipped through the cracks last time around.

sarahanne said...

Daniel, you are my hero. I'm proud of everything you do in the name of not-letting-the-man-get-you-down, but I'm especially proud of the email about Carolina's reproductive capacity. Please keep me updated as well.
: )

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