My Darling Wife had to go to City Hall the other day to conduct some routine business.
Which is almost laughable to anyone who has been to City Hall and knows the truth: the only thing “routine” about business there is that it’s frustrating and painful.
It turns out that when we moved to our new house in 2008 the assessor lost our homestead exemption application. The result being that we’ve overpaid property taxes for two years now and we’re due a refund.
Fearlessly, my Darling Wife first visited the assessor’s office on the third floor and was able to convince them of the error. It took a few months but a corrected assessment was provided. For a refund, she was advised to call upon the finance department on the first floor.
A few clicks of a computer and the finance department confirmed it: yes, the city had collected more than the adjusted tax bill and a refund was in order. All we had to do was produce the cancelled check.
The cancelled check? My Darling Wife asked, why do you need that? Didn’t you just confirm that the taxes were overpaid?
Yes, the finance department said, we confirm the taxes were overpaid. We are prepared to order a refund. But we need to know who gets the refund.
My Darling Wife was confused. As the property owner and the person who overpaid the taxes, wouldn’t you just give the refund to me?
We will issue a refund to the person who overpaid the taxes, the finance department said.
And that’s me, she replied.
How do we know that? the finance department asked. We need proof.
My Darling Wife wondered aloud, who else but us would be paying our property taxes?
We need the cancelled check, or a notarized affidavit.
So a few days later and with the help of a lawyer friend (thanks, Dangerblond!), my Darling Wife returned to the finance department with legal documents that prove to the satisfaction of the City of New Orleans that we and only we paid property taxes on the house that we and only we have owned for the past two years and that we and only we are entitled to a refund of some of the taxes that we and only we paid.
It was her third trip to City Hall to conduct this same routine business.
And as I often complain, if educated people with good communication skills have this much trouble interfacing with government, what must it be like for less educated, less articulate citizens?
In fact, while in line to complete our paperwork, my Darling Wife met a man who had come to City Hall to pay delinquent taxes. He explained that if he did not pay his taxes soon, the city would quickly be moving to take his house. His tax bill was about $300, and he had brought cash to pay it and end the threat of foreclosure.
But once he stepped up to the window, the finance department informed him that a late penalty had been added to this bill. Apparently surprised at the news, the man pulled out every dollar he had on his person.
And he came up $4 short.
Sorry, said the finance department. Next!
Flustered, the man turned to leave.
My Darling Wife said the man looked like he had struggled mightily to scrape together the tax money. She fully understood his frustration at having to go home with unfinished business and the prospect of coming back to do it all again another day.
So she gave him $4, and he paid his property taxes in full.
We live in a city of haves and have-nots.
And I remain forever grateful for what I have: a wife who willingly takes on City Hall in all its soulless bureaucracy, and who remembers that it is the smallest acts of kindness that preserve our humanity and make urban living possible.