Hold­ing for Godot

A reader’s let­ter about his feat of en­durance in try­ing to get a ques­tion an­swered from the State Depart­ment of As­sess­ments and Tax­a­tion has a happy end­ing

Baltimore Sun - - NATION -

ili­gent 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 was 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

Dpic­ture 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 cor­rect num­ber for ques­tions about per­sonal prop­erty taxes is 410-767-1170; email sdat.per­[email protected]­land.gov. SDAT’s gen­eral num­ber is 410-7671184.

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."

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