I sent the letter below to my state representatives after receiving a number of incorrect violation notices and a requirement that I file a California state tax return in the next few days. If I were feeling cynical, I would say that states benefit from making so many errors, which they struggle to fix. But, I think a large part of the problem is that people don’t complain to their elected officials often enough. That’s why the motto of this blog is “complain, complain, complain.”
Some simple, non-partisan suggestions to change the law so that you receive less irate phone calls from citizens.
A couple of times each year, I receive notices threatening to take action if I don’t immediately comply with some law. These notices are usually due to clerical errors. Once data has been incorrectly entered into an IT system, it can be extremely difficult to get the error fixed. These issues cut across state and local governments. Maryland can be a model for the rest of the country by making a few simple changes.
(1) Require, by law, that government employees make a serious attempt to contact you by phone and email when an issue arises, and document that they did so. The web is 40 years old. Nearly everyone has a smartphone and an email address. A simple text message could clear up an issue before it metastasizes into a major problem. The following are issues I’ve dealt with over the years.
The Maryland Department of the Environment incorrectly entered my registration data into a database because they had trouble reading my handwriting. As a result, I received a violation notice. I was initially told it was just a mistake. It was only months later I learned, by accident, that they had recorded the incorrect information. There is an entire body of law and a large amount of resources to make both public and private buildings, as well as phone and web interfaces, handicap accessible. My issue could have been prevented for the cost of an email, that is for 15 seconds of someone’s time.
The Maryland MVA lost my insurance information and cancelled my vehicle registration. They notified me by mail nearly a week after my registration was cancelled. When I tried to contact them, they were not answering the phones. Again, a phone call could have prevented this. There was no need to take any other action.
The North Carolina Employment Security Commission somehow created multiple accounts for me with incorrect social security numbers. I don’t know how it happened, but it is a reasonable guess that they could not read some handwritten form. Every several days for months, I received a letter threating to take money out of my account due to overpayment. This is money I did not receive on an account that wasn’t mine. Because they had outsourced the process to private industry, it took months to get the problem fixed. Again, if someone had contacted me, this might have been prevented.
I lost my job and moved to Maryland. North Carolina continued to send letters to my former address demanding I file a state tax return. After five years, they went into my private checking account and took a substantial sum that I did not owe. In five years, North Carolina did not attempt to call or email me, not even one time. In this particular case, I think it is fair to say this went beyond negligence, and borders on the criminal.
Howard County did not like some of the information I provided on a rental property registration form. Instead of emailing me, they mailed the form back to me, delaying the process and requiring me to fill out the form again.
I challenged the value of my property which Wake County valued at about 6% more than what I paid for it. They mailed the notice of the court date to the wrong address. I didn’t learn of the error until being notified that I had lost for failing to show up.
North Carolina cashed my check but lost my tax return. This time they had the correct Maryland address, but they should have attempted to call me.
(2) Provide for adequate response times. I routinely get notices from the HOA and the county demanding I take action, usually within 30 days, or face heavy fines. The action I’m required to take can sometimes involve thousands of dollars. By the time I open the letter, the 30 days notice is more like three weeks. And by the time I can get someone on the phone or a response to email, it’s more like two weeks. Except for health and safety issues, there is no reason to require short response times. Ninety days minimum should be required by law.
The state of California sent me a notice demanding I file a state tax return. Except, because I neither live nor work in California, they didn’t have my address. So they sent the notice to my former employer. My former employer eventually forward the notice to me. By the time I got the notice and was able to get someone on the phone to find out what this was about, I had only a few days to respond — just a few days for filing a tax return.
I sent Howard County payment for property taxes three weeks in advance. The check was either delayed in the mail, or more likely the county was behind on processing payments. I had to go to the county council to get the problem fixed.
Important rental renewal information was delayed in the mail, or more likely Howard County was delayed in processing the information, and I received another notice of violation. It took a few dozen emails and phone calls to get to the bottom of the problem only to learn that there was no problem.
My tenant’s voucher program notified me by mail that they had changed the date of the inspection. I received the notice after the inspection was performed.
I have already mentioned that the MVA notified me of the adverse action they took only AFTER they took action.
HOAs frequently demand compliance within three to four weeks of a notice of violation. Compliance often means thousands of dollars in cosmetic repairs. HOAs almost never enforce these timelines; nevertheless, there is no reason the duration can’t be at least 90 days.
(3) Provide photographic evidence. Sometimes HOAs and the county send photos after an inspection, and sometimes they don’t. A decent smartphone with a camera costs only a couple hundred dollars. There is no excuse for not providing photos.
Most recently, I received a violation notice from Howard County for rotten trim and overgrown weeds. I repeatedly asked for photos. After a number of phone calls, I eventually figured out that the enforcement officer was looking at the wrong house! Had I been sent photos, the problem would have been immediately obvious and would have saved us both a lot of time.