Bamboozled: Tax check lost? You loose out

Homeowners have a responsibility to make timely property tax payments.??????????????????

Joan Bloomer wants to know when that responsibility ends.

For 43 years, Bloomer has lived in her Clinton home, a commercial property in a prime location in town. The building has two stores on the ground floor, and on the upper levels, one office and three apartments.

Bloomer, 67, says she’s always paid her property taxes on time, with the exception of once in the mid-1990s. She said during a snowstorm, while driving a friend to the hospital, she dropped her payment in a mailbox outside the Clinton post office. The payment never made it to the tax collector, so Bloomer didn’t argue, and she paid about $35 in interest penalties and re-wrote the check for her tax payment.

Now, she says, she’s extra careful to make sure her payments are received.

Despite that care, Bloomer received her second-ever late property tax notice earlier this year in a mishap that’s gotten her ire up.

It started on Feb. 7, when Bloomer transferred money from one account to another to cover her property taxes, records show.

“From the bank, I went to the post office with my envelope, which included the check and tax stub to be mailed,” she said in a letter to the Clinton mayor and town council. “John, a sales associate who has worked at the post office for 14 years, hand stamped the envelope and put it directly into the Town of Clinton box.”

All was well until Feb. 26, when she received a notice of delinquency, which included a penalty interest charge for a late payment.

“I mailed the check, and it was placed directly into the town box,” Bloomer said. “I checked with the post office and John clearly remembers putting my envelope into the town box.”

Bloomer said it shouldn’t be her responsibility to pay penalty interest because of what she calls a mistake on the town’s part.

So that day, Bloomer hand-delivered a new check for the now overdue taxes, and the town’s tax collector gave her a receipt. Bloomer also hand-delivered a written request for a waiver of the punitive interest.

The answer came in a March 27 letter from Clinton mayor Janice Kovach.

Kovach said the town’s attorney determined there is no provision in the statutes that would allow the town, or any municipality, to waive such interest charges.

“Please understand it is not that we don’t want to waive the interest, because if we could, we would do so immediately,” Kovach’s letter said. “Rather, it is that we are legally precluded from doing so, and the last thing the Town wants to do is knowingly violate any State law.”

Bloomer wasn’t satisfied.

“My envelope was put into the town post office box by a federal postal employee,” she said. “I would think my responsibility ends right there, but according to the tax collector, `until it reaches my desk it is not paid.’ Therefore, it can be lost from the post office box to her desk and that makes me still responsible.”

Bloomer said she asked a town employee how the town’s mail gets from the post office building to the town offices. She said she was told a town employee picks up the mail twice a day from the post office, and then it’s sorted again when it gets to the town building.

“Who knows how many people handle the mail and they still want me to be responsible,” Bloomer said. “Had I mailed it in the collection box outside of the post office, I would not complain, but that isn’t the case. Someone at town hall picked up the mail and it was lost from the box and never even got to the tax collector’s desk.”

Unhappy, Bloomer paid the interest charge of $55.41 on March 31, and she reached out to Bamboozled.

“I am a bookkeeper, and any system unable to refund monies based on an error is seriously flawed,” she said
FOLLOW THE RULES, FOLLOW THE MONEYsenior

We reviewed Bloomer’s letters, tax bills and receipts, and we set off to find whatever statue covers this kind of thing.

We started with a call and an email to the town, which didn’t specify in its letter to Bloomer what statute disallowed it from waiving or refunding fees.

While we waited, we gave a call to Michael Schneck of the Schneck Law Group in Livingston.

He said that there’s no specific law that prohibits such waivers or refunds, but more importantly, there is no law that specifically permits them.

“The municipalities can only do what the statutes authorize them to do,” Schneck said. “It’s that way with all government actions. They have to be authorized to act.”

That leaves no room for any common sense decision-making. Liken it to this: Say you leave your kids home alone. Before you leave, you set a rule that they can’t use the oven, but you don’t specifically say they are allowed to have a snack or use the bathroom.

If your kids are held to the same standard as municipalities, you’ll come home to hungry kids with super-full bladders, all because you didn’t specifically say what the kids could do while you were gone.

It makes sense for a municipality to be strict with property tax deadlines, sure. And it’s absolutely the taxpayer’s responsibility to make those payments on time.

But how far does a taxpayer have to go? Is it an unreasonable expectation for taxpayers, if they see their tax payments placed in the town’s mailbox, to believe the payments will arrive at their intended destination?

We wanted to know more about how Clinton town offices get the mail.

Generally, mail presented at post offices and collected from blue street collection boxes are consolidated and sent to a local mail processing center, said USPS spokesman George Flood.

But Clinton has a different process for town mail.

“Clinton postal officials said they were extending a customer courtesy for mail addressed to the municipality,” he said. “The mail was postmarked locally at the counter; then placed in the municipality’s post office box.”

After that, only the municipality’s designee would have access, Flood said.

Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach confirmed via email that a municipal employee picks up the town’s mail and brings it to the town’s offices, at which time it’s sorted and delivered to the correct recipients.

We asked about Bloomer’s payment.

“It may be possible that the envelope fell on the floor or was not placed in our box of mail,” she said. “This isn’t about pointing fingers and laying blame at the post office – but we cannot process what doesn’t come into our offices.”

Bloomer doesn’t blame the post office. She believes it must have been lost or misplaced somewhere inside town offices.

Whatever the reason the payment was lost, Bloomer won’t be receiving a refund, Kovach said.

That’s because there is no statute that allows the tax collector or the governing body to waive interest, she said, and in the absence of a statute, it is not allowed.

“The municipality is a creature of the state and we have to abide by the laws and processes they have set for us,” she said.

She said the town never disputed the validity of Bloomer’s complaint.

“While I understand Mrs. Bloomer’s frustration I also have to weigh the impact of any precedent we may inadvertently set and of course not just the impact to us but to other municipalities,” Kovach said. “Keep in mind if we took it upon ourselves to waive the interest for one we could be forced to waive interest for all – including interest paid previously.”

That’s a most interesting observation by the mayor.
HOW TO PROTECT YOUR PAYMENTS

Let Bloomer’s experience be a lesson for you.

Sticking your payment in the mail isn’t good enough.

Sending it certified mail won’t cut it either, because even if your envelope is signed for, you’ll be unable to prove that it landed on the correct desk.

Private mail delivery services won’t make it any better for the same reason.

The only foolproof way to be sure your payment is received it to deliver it by hand and get a receipt from your municipality’s tax collector. Or pay online if your municipality permits online payments.

Bloomer says hand delivery will be her method from now on.

“I want everyone to know if it doesn’t reach the tax collector’s desk, you’ll be liable for fees, no matter how careful you were,” she said.

It’s a good lesson for us all to remember.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.

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