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Meir Rinde

 

Check’s in the Mail

For two years, Tom Ford has been trying to get a $113 tax refund from the city.

 

By Meir Rinde

November 16, 2006

   

For two years, Tom Ford has been trying to get a $113 tax refund from the city of Hartford.

He’s filled and refilled out forms, and sent and resent copies of tax receipts. The city agrees he’s owed the money, he says. He’s gone to the tax office multiple times, chatted with Assessor Larry LaBarbera, and been repeatedly assured the check is on its way.

He’s still waiting.

“I feel like a kid on the paper route who keeps going after the guy, saying I want my two dollars,” said Ford, an auto salesman who now lives in West Hartford. “It’s very frustrating. It’s a small thing. I find it comical and I find it annoying.”

Ford’s futile pursuit appears to be one small example of a host of problems that continue to plague the city’s finance office, despite efforts at reform.

The tax collector’s office is in the midst of a 90-day audit resulting in part from Mayor Eddie Perez’s own observation of problems like long lines, customers getting wrong information and slow or incorrect registration of payments. Matt Hennessy, the mayor’s chief of staff, told the Hartford Courant that Perez has been concerned about customer service in the finance department “for some time.”

Other than those general comments, the city isn’t saying what occasioned the probe. Tax collector Donald LeFevre, who has been put on paid leave, said he was told there were “very serious” allegations of misconduct but wasn’t given any specifics.

As the Advocate reported last month, at least two finance employees were fired last year. One was accused of putting almost $3,000 worth of her own parking tickets on hold for years, and the other was arrested for stealing a money order from the city.

Two other employees left the department after allegedly placing holds on their tax bills, and a cashier who still works there routinely stashed residents’ payments in her drawer without processing them, the Hartford Business Journal reported.

 

Tom Ford didn’t know it at the time, but his tax office problem dates back to 2001, when he sold his home in West Hartford and briefly lived in southwest Hartford before moving to another city, he said.

In 2004, the DMV refused to update his driver’s license until he paid the city overdue car taxes. Ford’s car was registered in Hartford for a year and half and he owed $748, according to copies of bills he provided.

A few months later he applied for a partial refund based on his claim that he’d only lived in the city for six months and had sold the car during one of the taxation periods. “At first they said, well, you have to prove to us that you paid the taxes in the first place,” he recalled. “Obviously it’s on their computer, but OK.”

He sent in copies of receipts for the payment he’d made, and got back a letter saying the city would refund him $113.85, he said.

“As time goes on, you forget about things,” Ford said. “It’s a small amount. The following year comes around, and I’m thinking, there’s certain things you didn’t get last year, and this is one of them. So I go back to town hall. I ask, ‘Where’s my tax money that you owe me?’ And they look up on their computer. ‘Oh yes, we do owe you this. We’ll process it and send it out to you.’”

In spring of 2005 he still hadn’t gotten a refund. He went back and filled out another form, to no avail. “Now it’s 2006 and I’m thinking, I ain’t never got my check from the city of Hartford,” he said with a laugh. “So I go back down in June, and they said blah blah blah, fill out a form, fill out a form.” Another request for proof of payment, more copies of receipts, another letter saying he was owed money, and still no refund.

 

In July he visited the tax office and was directed to the supervisor, Assessor Larry LaBarbera, Ford said.

LaBarbera checked the computer and confirmed the refund, telling him, “‘Oh, that’s terrible. You should have got it by now. Let’s make sure we have all the information correct. I’ll make sure it gets processed,’” according to Ford. LaBarbera did not return a call from the Advocate.

Ford went in and spoke to LaBarbera in August, and then again in September. “Now he knows me by face,” he said. “‘Oh, hi Tom, how are you? You’re kidding. You didn’t get your check yet?’

“Now we go from booth to booth with the girls. He’s introducing me to them, they’re looking my name up on the computer, it’s right in front of me, it’s being processed. And it’s always this one girl downstairs who you can’t go see. That’s where the check is.

“Every time they try to call her, she’s not there, and the other girls are saying — this happened twice — she’s probably not in yet. This happened at 11 in the morning.”

Ford said he called the mayor’s office and spoke to a woman in the finance department who said she would make sure the check would go out. No dice.

Last week he visited LaBarbera again. “There were two big guys with suits on in the main office in the tax department,” Ford said. “He pointed to them and said, ‘Right now we’re being investigated.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry about that, but what does that have to do with my $113 you owe me from three years ago?’ We laughed, and Larry says, ‘I know, I know.’

“They obviously have some issues and some problems down there,” Ford said. “‘Infinite bureaucracy’ is what I call it. You can’t get $113 back in two years when everybody agrees it’s owed? And you go there 20 times, you fill out forms over and over and over again?”

Ford noted that late taxpayers must pay interest charges, but the city does not. “Here it is, two years later, they owe me the money, and they only plan on paying the principal,” he said. “There’s no interest being discussed, which I’m not looking for. I just want my money that I had to pay. I just want it back.”

 

Copyright © 2006, Hartford Advocate