Existentialism and the Maryland tax office, revisited

Diligent readers of the letters section in The Sun may have been amused or horrified by a submission printed on Saturday from Steve Warres, a Baltimore man who spent six hours, 21 minutes and 50 seconds on hold with the State Department of Assessment and Taxation in an ultimately fruitless effort to get an answer to a tax question. It’s not the usual fare for the Readers Respond column, but how could we resist printing a letter that veered from Camus and existentialism to the latest episode of the long-running CBS reality show, “Survivor”?

A quick recap for those who might have missed it: Mr. Warres got a personal property tax bill he believed to be in error. He called SDAT only to get an endless string of messages, one per minute, assuring him "Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line — an agent will be with you as soon as possible." Mr. Warres offered two explanations for his behavior. First, he cited French writer Albert Camus’ suggestion that individuals employ certain exercises to develop an existentialist view of life, such as to “wait in a long theater line, then walk away upon reaching the ticket counter.” Second, he said he and his wife had watched “Survivor” the night before, and one of the challenges in the episode called for contestants to hang onto an uncomfortable perch for as long as possible in the tropical sun. One of the contestants, Baltimore native Christian Hubicki, bested his competitors by holding on for more than five hours. “So after an hour on the phone, my wife challenged me to wait at least as long, in relative comfort, as Christian.” He did, and he sent the screen shot on his phone to prove it.

On Saturday morning, Corbett Webb, SDAT’s chief of staff, contacted The Sun to complain that the letter contained incorrect information. The number Mr. Warres had called was not SDAT’s number, he said. Upon further investigation, he wrote again to say it turned out to be an old number that was somehow listed on the Harford County government web page but that isn’t connected at all to the tax agency’s systems.

Turns out Mr. Warres was not dealing with Camus so much as Samuel Beckett; he holding for Godot.

Mr. Webb said his agency would contact Harford County to get that number scrubbed from its page, and he asked for Mr. Warres’ contact information to see if anyone could help.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hubicki took note and tweeted out a picture of the letter with the message, “The @baltimoresun, my hometown paper, ran this editorial. In being on #Survivor, I was hoping to inspire viewers to embrace engineering and physics. Didn't expect civics... Glad you're watching Steve Warres.”

The story would get more complicated. Mr. Warres had gotten a personal property tax bill related to an office in Baltimore that he had closed years before, and he had called the city to straighten it out. It was from a person there, not the Harford website, that he got the erroneous number. Mr. Webb reached out to Mr. Warres over the weekend and asked for a copy of the tax bill, promising that his office would look into it. One of Mr. Warres’ state delegates, Shelly Hettleman, recognized his name and contacted him to offer help. (She later discovered that his wife was her daughter’s kindergarten teacher. #Smalltimore)

Mr. Webb did get to the bottom of things. Baltimore City, he explained, is one of a few jurisdictions that sends out estimated personal property tax bills before getting the information from the state, and the bill that Mr. Warres got was based on a 2015 assessment. That system usually works fine, he said, but in some cases, like Mr. Warres’, it doesn’t.

Mr. Webb said he also discovered that the department had discontinued the number Mr. Warres called in 2017 and sent communications to the county governments informing them of the fact at the time. He said SDAT will be following up with another batch of advisories this week in an effort to scrub that number entirely. The department has put in a work order for the number to be disconnected, which should happen later this week. The correct number for questions about personal property taxes is 410-767-1170; email sdat.persprop@maryland.gov. SDAT’s general number is 410-767-1184.

Mr. Warres says he got a notification from Baltimore City this week that his tax bill has been “abated.” He offers his thanks to all those involved. Whether Mr. Hubicki’s endurance will land him the $1 million prize is yet to be determined. But Mr. Warres’ time saved him $156.61.

And what is time, anyway? Mr. Warres offers this from Franz Kafka: "Only our concept of Time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgement by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session."

— Andrew A. Green

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