More Certain than Death and Taxes

For failure to pay a tax penalty approximately equivalent to the cost of a fast food meal — $6.30 — the $280,000 home of a widow in western Pennsylvania was auctioned off for $116,000 [ref].

While I believe that people should pay their taxes (and vote for fiscally-conservative politicians who will rein in spending and lower taxes), I find it incredibly outrageous that such a meager unpaid amount would result in such a harsh penalty.

To me, this case speaks volumes about the sad state of our country.

Eileen Battisti’s husband passed away in 2004, subsequent to which she had difficulty paying her bills. She had been late on some tax bills, but thought she had paid them in full. The $6.30 was a penalty on her 2009 tax bill. She was sent a single notice of the outstanding amount, which notice she says she never received. A subsequent tax bill the following year, which she paid in full, failed to include the unpaid amount.

No doubt Mrs. Battisti had paid multiple thousands of dollars in taxes over the years. Certainly the $6.30 was a miniscule percent of the taxes she’d paid. The tax office could have easily written off the pittance owed. But they did not. Instead, they chose to take her home from her for a fraction of its value.

Someone in the tax office could have easily paid the tiny bill for Mrs. Battisti. One day’s lunch money. But nobody did.

So the Beaver County Common Pleas Court sent Mrs. Battisti’s home to the auction block, without even holding an evidentiary hearing.

If Mrs. Battisti had been out of work, or in some way dependent on the government, she would have been collecting thousands of dollars worth of benefits from the government. But because she was a taxpayer, and happened to be delinquent on a teeny tiny portion of her tax bill, draconian measures were taken against her.

Was justice served? No way.

Doubtless the judge could have taken a more reasonable course of action, perhaps garnishing Mrs. Battisti’s wages, or mandating an hour of community service (the $6.30 was less than an hour of minimum wage), or ruling the matter closed, and the tax bill satisfied (cutting short the hearing by a few minutes would have saved much more than $6.30).

Instead, the judge decided to violate due process and strip Mrs. Battisti of her home for what ended up being 41 cents on the dollar, possibly putting Mrs. Battisti in a position where she would become dependent on the government, and cost the government (taxpayers, really) far, far more than the $6.30 late payment penalty she’d been assessed.

Fortunately for Mrs. Battisti, she was able to get a hearing from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, which sent the case back to Beaver County Common Pleas Court, citing the Beaver County Court’s failure to hold an evidentiary hearing before ruling against her, and criticizing the court for taking such an inappropriate action in the first place.

Ben Franklin once lamented that ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” [ref]. He was mostly right. If Franklin were alive today, I think he’d amend his statement to something like this: In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and the abuse of power by government bureaucrats.

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