For almost six months now, Elizabeth B. Brooks has gotten the runaround, multiple broken promises, endless delays, and ridiculously rude service in a fruitless attempt to get a $300 refund she's owed.
We hear gripes like hers all the time here. Except that her particular complaint doesn't involve a business.
This time, the offender is government - specifically, the Baltimore City Circuit Court's Land Records Division.
This column almost always focuses on complaints about Corporate America and businesses in general. But boneheaded customer service is hardly exclusive to private enterprise. Can I get an "amen" from anyone who has visited a Motor Vehicle Administration or permitting office?
Brooks, co-owner of a Towson titling company, encountered her woes back on Aug. 6 when she sent an employee down to the land records office to pay the cost of recording documents.
"We figure out on a settlement sheet how much the final cost should be ahead of time, but sometimes, that final figure can change," Brooks said. "So we sent our recorder down there with a signed company check that was blank.
"The clerk told her to make the check out for $2,554.50, which she did. But when she brought the receipt back to me, the receipt said the correct amount we paid was $2,254.50. We overpaid by $300.
"I called immediately to alert them to the mistake and asked what I should do," Brooks said.
Brooks said she was told to fill out several documents to request a refund and send in copies of the receipt and canceled check. Brooks said she did one better by having the documents hand-delivered to the office a few days later.
"It's money from our client's escrow account, so it's important," Brooks said. "When that money comes back, it's got to go back to our client."
Two weeks later, Brooks said she called to check on the status of the refund and spoke to Pat Allen, who identified herself as head clerk in the office.
"She told me a Mr. Charles Mackey was the only person in the office who can handle refunds, but he was out on medical leave for six weeks," Brooks said.
Determined, Brooks said she called every two weeks to find out if Mackey had returned to work. When she discovered that he had returned in September, she said she left three messages on his voice mail. She received no response.
In desperation, Brooks said she went down to see Mackey Oct. 22. Brooks said Mackey explained that he had been unable to respond to her because he had been out sick. He then took copies of all her paperwork, including the receipt and canceled check.
"He said he was going to take care of it," Brooks said. "I never heard from him again.
"Every two weeks, I called. When I finally reached him on Jan. 14, I was flabbergasted. I asked him about the refund. He said he had to find my papers and would call me back. I pleaded with him not to hang up on me. That's when he yelled into the phone, 'You are a big problem.'"
To find out what the problem really was, I contacted Allen, who said, "I approved her refund. She is due a refund." Allen then confirmed that "the refund part is up to Mr. Mackey."
Mackey, an administrative clerk in the office, said that the office receives "a lot of refund requests. We can't process them right away."
Mackey also said that the average length of time to get a refund is six months.
"She's going to get it," Mackey said. "It's just not going to come as quickly as she likes."
Just to see if that is typical of other land record offices, I called Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties to check. Both said a refund request, if approved by the office, usually ends up in the comptroller's or budget office where a check is cut and sent to the recipient. That process should take weeks, not months, if all the proper paperwork is available, they said.
"Unless there's a serious problem, it shouldn't take that long," said Robert P. Duckworth, Arundel's clerk of courts. "You should be able to go back to the books for that day and see that you had an overage."
Mackey, however, contends that Brooks did not provide important documents needed to process the refund. He said he tried to call her, but was unable to leave a message on the answering machine.
When I pressed him about what exactly Brooks was missing, Mackey said a receipt (despite the fact that Brooks provided him with the only one she was given), but did not elaborate.
He also disputed Brooks' tale of the events, saying that his notes show that he wasn't even aware of her request until November. He also said it's not true that he is the only one in the office who can process refunds.
"I've told her I would get the thing done," Mackey said. "Think about how long it takes to get your income taxes back."
I'm not sure about everyone else, but my tax refund has never taken six months to get back to me.
In this he said/she said battle, it's hard to say who is retelling the sequence of events accurately. The only fact everyone seems to agree upon is that Brooks is owed a refund. Why she hasn't received it yet, no one can seem to say.
One call to Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway appeared to clear the matter up instantaneously.
"That is not normal," Conaway said Wednesday.
"I would not wait around that long for a refund. I don't train my people to treat my customers that way and I can assure you, give me a week, this woman will have her refund. "Someone is going to pay for this. I am a stickler for good customer service."
And why is that, I asked?
"We work for the people," Conaway said.
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