When you are getting by on a meager fixed income each month, you want to make every penny count.
That's why Margaret Sunny of Allentown wanted to save 40 cents, and to be a good citizen, by paying her city resident tax and per capita tax early. Her July 1 tax bill noted a total of $20 due, but with a 2 percent discount, which applied to any payment made within 60 days of the billing date.
She wanted to ask a "quick question" to make sure she made out the $19.60 check correctly, so she called the telephone number of Berkheimer Tax Administrator, the commercial outfit hired by Allentown to collect taxes.
Her tax bill listed the Berkheimer office at 609 Hamilton St., Allentown, with the phone number right below that address.
Sunny's "quick question" call turned into a 25.8-minute wait on hold, listening to Berkheimer's horrible computerized elevator music and automated recorded voices with the same messages over and over.
Personally, I think it should be a hanging offense when any establishment does that to innocent victims. The official motto of all such outfits is, "Our time is valuable; yours isn't." That 25.8-minute wait, however, was not what irked Sunny the most.
When she received her monthly telephone bill from Verizon, it listed that as a long-distance call and charged her $3.87 for it, under Verizon's "Sensible Minute Plan."
How can it be long distance when Sunny's home and the Berkheimer office on Hamilton are just blocks apart, both within Allentown city limits? How is that sensible?
It turns out the call to the number printed on the Berkheimer bill, just under the Allentown office address, is actually in Bangor, up in the wilds of Northampton County. There is no mention of that on the bill. In fact, the bill also says "payments can be made at our Allentown office located at 609 West Hamilton St."
"I called in good faith … because it [the phone number] was written right under the Hamilton Street address," Sunny told me.
She said she called Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and several other politicians to complain, but got nowhere. Sunny was a social worker with a nonprofit organization for more than 15 years, but is now unemployed and looking for work.
When I tried to ask the Berkheimer people about all this, I had a little trouble getting through myself. So after being prompted to push this or that number on my phone dial pad and listening to interminable horrible music, I asked Mike Moore, spokesman for the city, how to get in touch with a real live human being there.
City officials, I assumed, must have a way to talk to their tax collectors without waiting on hold for 25.8 minutes. Moore gave me links to the city's and Berkheimer's Internet pages, both of which provided a phone number different from the one on Sunny's bill. "Sorry, this number is not currently in service," said another recorded voice when I called that number, repeatedly, on successive days.
I tried other parts of Berkheimer's Internet site. "We are Pennsylvania's most trusted tax administrator," it says. "We are here to help. You can easily contact us by email, phone or mail."
When I tried the "contact" option, it did not provide an actual email address, but up popped one of those forms that ask you to give your name and address and to explain what you want, then you hit a "submit" tab. I can't prove it, but when any outfit refuses to provide an email address and uses one of those "submit" forms instead, I suspect that whatever you say merely goes into some sort of cyber black hole.
Fortunately, I found out that Dan Hartzell, who writes The Morning Call's "Road Warrior" column, has an honest-to-goodness telephone book — you know, one of those old-fashioned things printed on paper. It gave still another number for Berkheimer and I called it.
After some more prompts and some more pushing of buttons, I reached an operator and told her I was a newspaper guy calling about a taxpayer who had a complaint. She immediately connected me with the voice mail of Dave Gordon, Berkheimer's in-house lawyer.
I left a detailed message with Gordon, but he never got back to me. Instead, I eventually got a call from Jim Hunt, Berkheimer's director of sales, who told me what I already knew about the problem telephone number on the bill.
"It's listed under the address for our Allentown office, but it's for the real estate department in Bangor," he said. "That's the phone number for our phone bank."
I told Hunt it seemed unfair to hide that information from taxpayers, many of whom, like Sunny, probably do not have phone company accounts that allow for unlimited toll-free calling anywhere in America, even Bangor. "It's something we could look into," Hunt said. "For her to be on hold for that long is unusual. … Two to four minutes is the usual."
I guess both Sunny and I are the unusual types, because we spent a lot more than two minutes trying to find a live human via Berkheimer's automated phone system.
"I hope I get my money back," Sunny told me. I hope she gets it back, too — from somebody — but I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays