Archive | January, 2013

Does the city of Chico owe you money? Well go get it!

31 Jan

One of the nice things about wordpress.com is that you get a “stats” report every day, showing what people are reading and which links get hit on your blog. Lately, the cell phone tax refund application has been getting POUNDED!  

That makes me happy, because I don’t know what this whole Measure J fight was about if it wasn’t about getting back illegally gotten gains.  Here’s that link again:

http://www.chico.ca.us/finance/documents/CellPhoneRefundApplication_011713.pdf

This refund has been getting attention – there was a story on Ch 12 news the other night. But, the reporter was kind of sloppy again – this time, we heard Debbie Cobb announce that the most you can get back is $5 a month. She also said the city expects to lose $900,000, in refunds?   When the biggest refund is only about $60?  Do the math there, maybe Debbie should listen to her own reports. When I had AT&T, and we had the cheapest plan available with only two phones, we were seeing at least $5 /month taken for UT. Just imagine what these big families, with phones for each kid, were paying. And Mark Sorensen projected the average business was paying hundreds a year for Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP.  But, even with these kind of refunds, there’s no way the city will pay out $900,000 – silly Debbie, that’s what  the city originally predicted they would lose annually from not having the tax.  At a Finance Committee meeting last month, Hennessy said it was really only $500,000, anyway.   I wish these “news reporters” would pay attention. They make it harder to get the truth out there when they stick their big foot in it. Sometimes I have to wonder if they do it on purpose. 

I just hope people saved their bills – this isn’t a giveaway, that’s  for sure. Hennessy acts as though she’s refunding the money out of her own checkbook. Well, she is, kind of. They’re starting to get worried about how they will make payroll down there, including her salary. Look at some of these people – they’ve been living it up on their big salaries, getting way into debt, I’m guessing. Some of them are faced with absolute ruin. I guess they’re worried!  

Well, to borrow a phrase from the playground – “‘tough titty!’ said the kitty, when the milk ran dry…”

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City announces they’ve instructed cell phone companies to stop taking tax – check your bills to make sure!

29 Jan

I see the Measure J refunds story is in the “most read” section of the Enterprise Record  today, but I posted it here just in case you missed it – read below.

I see a couple of problems in the story – for one thing, Ashley Gebb is a sloppy reporter. There she says, “Nearly 54 percent of residents voted in November to not update the city’s phone user tax”.  No no Dear, it was 54 % of the city’s VOTERS, not residents, duh. Does she understand how voting works?  Sorry to be a nit-picker, but this is the same gal that lectured me on the proper mis-use of the word “average“.  I notice she dropped that word from the part about billing amounts. In her pre-election story she said the “average”  bill in Chico was $50. When I questioned her about that, she came back like, “Oh silly, I didn’t mean mathematical average, I just meant, you know, AVERAGE!”

Another bit that bothers me is where Hennessy says folks will have to provide not only proof they were billed for the tax, but proof they PAID the tax? Of course, that should come up on the next bill, but what about your last bill? You need to wait until you get the following bill, that says you paid your previous bill? For Chrissake Jennifer, LET IT GO!  This whole thing reminds me of “Repo Man” – the old movie with Emilio Estevez. 

But, the good news is, ” the city has notified wireless phone companies to no longer collect the tax.”

Now, there’s some news! But I’d like to hear from those of you, who, like Jim in Chico, have seen the tax on their billing, who can check to make sure it’s gone. Let me know. 

Here’s Gebbs’ story:

Measure J-related phone tax refunds now available in Chico

By ASHLEY GEBB-Staff Writer
Posted:   01/29/2013 12:00:00 AM PST
 

CHICO — Chico residents can now apply for refunds for phone taxes paid to the city during the previous 12 months. 

Due to the failure of Measure J, the city is offering residents refunds for any utility user taxes paid for cellphones or Voice over Internet Protocol services within a year of application. 

Nearly 54 percent of residents voted in November to not update the city’s phone user tax to include modern technology such as cellphones, and the city has notified wireless phone companies to no longer collect the tax.

“If an individual showed documentation they were billed a tax and it was paid, we will issue them a refund,” said Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy on Wednesday.

The 5 percent phone tax would equate to about $2.50 of a monthly $50 bill or $5 of a monthly $100 bill.

Since November, any phone tax revenue that has come in has been placed in an account earmarked for refunds. If any remains after one year, the revenue may be placed in the general fund.

As for how many people may apply, “I have no idea,” Hennessy said. The potential fiscal impact is about $900,000 if all phone tax collected were to be reimbursed.

The City Council has not yet addressed what it will do to compensate for the loss in revenue, which supported the general fund.

Residents will need to provide documentation, including their cellphone bill and proof the bill was paid. Refunds will be issued beginning Feb. 21 and be mailed to the name and address on the bill.

Residents may not claim refunds for amounts previously refunded through the city’s utility tax refund program for income-qualified individuals. Verizon Wireless and MetroPCS customers are also not eligible because the providers did not collect the tax in the last 12 months.The refund application is the only way for the city to issue reimbursements, Hennessy said. The tax payments it received from phone companies are a lump sum, with no indication of who paid, for what and how much.Applications are available online and at City Hall’s Finance Department counter.

“We will be processing them as they come in and issuing refund checks,” City Attorney Lori Barker told the City Council this month. “Checks will be issued on the city’s regular cycle of processing and accounts payable.”

The City Council unanimously made final approval of the refund ordinance at its Jan. 15 meeting.

 

Connect with Ashley Gebb at 896-7768, agebb@chicoer.com, or on Twitter @AshleyGebb.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease

26 Jan

I been rattling chains over at the Finance Department to find out how they plan to legally notify the public about cell phone tax refunds. I feel  it’s more their job to protect the citizens than to protect the city itself, but they agree to disagree with me on that. It’s all about civility people – don’t ask too many questions, you will be treated like you’re from Glenn County or something. 

I feel the city should be more responsible for returning this ill-gotten booty, so I’ve been e-mailing the Finance office about once a week for more details. I have to give Frank Fields some credit – at least he answers my e-mails.   He told me they’d finally decided how to notice the cell phone tax  refund:

Ms. Sumner:     The City will be placing a “Notice” (much like the notice for the annual UUT Refund program) in both the Chico ER and Chico N&R beginning late next week (i.e., sometime over the weekend).   – Frank

We’re so damned civil around here! Don’t fart, you gauche bastard! 

So, next Thursday there should be something in the N&R, and then we’ll maybe see it in the ER later that weekend.  

Of course, as far as I know, they’re still taking it out off people’s bills, which really isn’t very civil, but you know how they are. Down at the city, civility means, you get a kiss with your screwing.

 I have not heard one more word on their quest to inform the cell phone companies. That’s a question for Jennifer Hennessy, and I forgot to ask her at the last Finance Committee meeting. I’ll have to drop her an e-mail soon. 

What I do know is, people are hitting that link I posted to the refund application – here it is again:

http://www.chico.ca.us/finance/documents/CellPhoneRefundApplication_0117

I hope people will get their refunds – that’s the real “victory” I’m looking for here, that the city is called on it’s bad behavior, and made to set things right. 

Latest news from Chula Vista – these people are fighting a battle for everybody

25 Jan

The citizens of Chula Vista are set to take their case to court February 8, asking a Superior Court judge to make the city stop taking a utility tax on their cell phones, and refund money the city has been collecting illegally for years. 

When my dad was working on the San Diego freeway, we visited him in his motel in Chula Vista – it wasn’t a bad town at all, we had a pretty nice weekend there.  I’m wishing them all the best. 

 

From the website of Casey,Perry, Schenk, Francavilla, Blatt and Penfield, LLP – the firm representing the people of Chula Vista:

http://www.caseygerry.com/news/chula-vista-fights-cell-phone-taxes-update

Chula Vista Fights Cell Phone Taxes: Update

DECEMBER 13, 2012

Chula Vista’s Cell Phone Tax Woes: Checking Up

By Will Carless

In the latest of our posts checking up on past stories, I’m taking a quick look at the legal fight over taxes on cell phone calls in Chula Vista.

The tax, introduced in 1970, charges a small fee on users of telephones, electricity and other utilities within the South Bay city. As cell phones came into popular use, Chula Vista started allowing phone companies to tax cell phone calls too, and for years it collected and spent that tax money.

The tax on cell phone calls was always on rather shaky ground. It was loosely based on Internal Revenue Service rules governing what can and can’t be taxed. But in the mid-2000s, the IRS lost a number of court cases over whether it could tax cell phone calls and, in 2006, a cell phone carrier wrote to the city of Chula Vista saying it didn’t think it still needed to collect the taxes.

But Chula Vista didn’t stop taking the tax money. The city argues that the tax is legal, though in recent years it’s been carefully stashing away the proceeds from the cell phone taxes in case it loses in court one day.

That day might be coming soon. Let’s take a look at how this has played out:

Where we left it:

The last time we wrote about this was back in June 2011. A pair of law firms had just filed suit against the city of Chula Vista over the tax.
It was a tough time for the city to get slammed with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. Chula Vista had just gone through a couple of years of financial misery, laying off staff and closing down city services.

The city had about $5.6 million stashed away in case in was ever sued on the tax, but attorneyThomas Penfield, who is suing the district, told me at the time that he would be seeking far more in damages.

What’s happened since?

The lawsuit was certified as a class action on Sept. 14. That basically means that a judge has

ruled that the plaintiffs in the case are the members of a class of people who have a claim against the city.

The city had originally challenged the lawsuit, arguing that a class action suit couldn’t legally be used to seek a tax refund. That challenge was dismissed by Superior Court Judge Richard E. Strauss in January.

Since the case was certified, the lawyers challenging the tax have been preparing to give notice to all the Chula Vista residents who might be a member of the class action. That involves sending out postcards to residents and setting up a website on the lawsuit. If any member of the class doesn’t believe he or she is being adequately represented in the suit, that person can choose to file a separate lawsuit, Penfield said.

Chula Vista’s city attorney and outside attorneys did not respond to calls for comment. The city’s finance director, Maria Kachadoorian said via email that the city’s financial situation has improved since the dark days of 2011.

“We are seeing modest improvements in our major revenue streams and the housing market seems to be settling down,” Kachadoorian wrote. “We anticipate that we will continue to see some challenges but nothing like what we experienced over the past four years.”

What happens next?

The case is set to go to trial on Feb. 8, 2013, before Strauss. Both sides of the lawsuit have proposed a two-stage hearing process, Penfield said. First, the judge will hear arguments as to whether the tax violates the law, and if so, whether damages should be awarded. The second stage, if necessary, will deal with how much the city will have to pay in damages.

As long as the city has continued to stash away the taxes and not spend them, the overall impact to Chula Vista’s bottom line shouldn’t be too damaging. If the city wins, it could potentially have a sorely needed windfall after years of cuts.

Penfield’s firm, CaseyGerry, partnered on the lawsuit with Orange County-based Capretz & Associates. The firm’s lawyers will be paid a contingency fee if the lawsuit is successful, and Chula Vistans who have paid the taxes will be entitled to damages.

Penfield said the amount of damages, and the method by which they will be paid, will have to be worked out in court.

In this case, the payoff amount per resident is pretty small. Cell phone users were likely taxed a few dollars a month by the city and they may have to go back through their bills to establish how much they are owed.

Penfield said the city is liable for the taxes for up to one year before the lawsuit was filed. That means Chula Vista is potentially on the hook for taxes it collected going back to April 2010.

I’ll write another update when there’s a verdict.

I walked in on a Pig Party!

25 Jan

January is a tough month, dark and cold. It’s hard to fight that compulsion to hibernate.  I don’t like to leave my house, I like to be in my comfort zone in January. But, for some dumb reason, I fight it. 

So, yesterday I planned all day to go to the Economic Development meeting Downtown. There was an interesting item on the agenda – some folks from Glenn County are proposing a “solid waste converter” – simply put – a giant incinerator that turns trash of all kinds into electricity. The burning trash heats water, creates steam, and turns the turbines that run the generator. It’s been done in Europe and Asia for years. In fact, I read an article from Jennifer Arbuckle of Northern Recycling and Waste Services saying that alot of our trash, including recyclables, goes to China to be burned for electricity. Whether they buy it, or we pay them to take it, I don’t know.

NRWS is out of the Bay Area. A couple of years ago, they entered into a garbage franchise with the town of Paradise. They are in the business of sorting and diverting trash from the landfill. Here’s an interesting article on that:

http://www.newsreview.com/chico/northernrecycling-waste-services-reduces-waste-stream/content?oid=1932112

I don’t know why this option has never been discussed for Chico. All I’ve ever heard at the STF meetings is that Neal Road Dump is starving because our haulers have been driving to Yuba City for cheaper “tipping fees.” The city is considering “franchise zones” – meaning, town will be split up like a pie between Waste Management and Recology. This will mean guaranteed revenues for both companies, but they have to sign an agreement to bring all their trash to Neal Road. This will not be good for customers – rates will raise to meet Neal Roads’ higher tipping fees  and we will have no choice of hauler.

Bringing in an outside company with a different plan is sure to make this conversation waaaay more interesting. Right now, we are in the stone age of trash.

So, a gal named Kara Baker from KVB Inc was going to give the Economic Development Committee a little presentation, and I had really wanted to hear it, but last week Mayor Goloff had the meeting changed to Wednesday. 

Of course this was in the agenda, but these meetings have been on the same day at the same time for over 4 years now, without change, so I haven’t looked at the day on the agenda for at least that many years. I used to be on the notice list, but they drop you from those if you don’t keep asking to be added. So, I asked to be added again so I won’t miss out. 

It was an interesting trip anyway. Turns out, instead of the ED meeting, I walked into the city employee contract talks. Wow, ever walk into a barn full of brood sows? You know – momma pigs. Momma pigs are nasty creatures, with nasty sharp little teeth. They’ll attack you alright, and they’re omnivores – remember,  never trust a man who keeps pigs!

When I walked into that little room, as I fumbled around trying to get my notebook out of my bag, scarf off neck, etc, I noticed all this food on the table. I thought, “since when do they have food at these meetings? Little trays with bread or something – sandwiches? Before I could get a good look, Chico PD officer Linda Dye turned at me from her chair, like a momma pig, and said, very unfriendly, “There’s a meeting going on in here right now!” I was struck dumb – all I knew at that moment was, the room was hostile. I apologized, and she softened a little, then I left. Outside, in the breezeway between City Hall and the muni building, I encountered city clerk staff Debbie Presson and Dani Brinkley, clattering across the sidewalk and up that ramp with a wheeled catering cart, full of MORE FOOD. 

I have to go now, so I won’t speculate on this. But the word TROUGH keeps popping into my mind. 

Write those letters! Sustainability Task Force needs to GO!

23 Jan

I have finally given up trying to attend city council meetings. It finally hit me that all the real business goes on in the daytime meetings, by the time it gets to council, it’s pretty done.  As if I’m going to sit through another plastic bag discussion when I know the votes are already there.  Or, if it’s an especially contentious issue, or too complicated for their tiny minds, they kick it down the road. Right now, service fees, for stuff like, monopolizing a city parking lot for five hours every Saturday morning, have not been reviewed since “2005 or 2006, not sure…”  According to Scott Gruendl, the city is losing money hand over fist as long as we don’t update, or raise, those fees.  But our Finance Director won’t have any reports on that until March or April – she waiting for her paid consultant to get back to her.

This is how they milk us for money, they just take FOR-EV-ER to do anything. 

All the real important stuff is done behind closed doors anyway. The employee contracts are being discussed tomorrow night behind closed doors. We are not allowed in there. They are supposed to bring us some contracts to look over, but according to one council member I asked, they have NOTHING right now, they’re still hashing it out. I’ll never forget Steve Bertagna’s answer when I asked why the public is not allowed in those discussions – it would put the city at a disadvantage he said, to have the discussion public. He explained how they play the various groups against each other, and secrecy is a big part of that. 

Yeah, just like the mafia, eh? Don’t worry about it! Just like Bronco Bama’s Chicago gang-style politics. Just like Richard Daley and the Chicago cops at the 1968 Democratic Convention. 

As long as the public is held out of the conversations we will continue to have problems with our public safety salaries and benefits. It was the public safety departments that forced Vallejo and Stockton into bankruptcy. 

The contracts are the only important discussion on the agenda. The “work plan” discussion is just more crap, they keep mouthing the same things over and over and doing absolutely nothing. Right now, the only important issue we’re facing is what these salaries and the refusal of the management and public safety staff to pay more of their own benefits is doing to our local economy.  

I’m not putting aside my family dinner for one more of these meetings. I might watch on the box once in a while, but the daytime meetings are where it’s at.  If you want to have any effect, you need to watch the morning meetings and write letters ahead of the council discussion. 

In February the council will discuss the future of the Sustainability Task Force. City manager Brian Nakamura has been meeting  behind closed doors with members of the STF, who are desperate to keep their little trolley on the tracks. He and Linda Herman assure me nothing illegal or inappropriate has gone on at these closed meetings, but that’s what they say.  How are we supposed to know when we aren’t allowed in? 

We need to write letters to Nakamura and council now, telling them the STF is a giant waste of staff time.  Read the old reports available on the city website, and look at the waste of staff time – how many meetings were cancelled because members didn’t care enough to show up.   I have the e-mail conversations – Linda Herman, at $85,000 plus benefits, e-mailing for days, trying to get up a quorum. Some of the original members have quit – either frustrated with the lack of real action, or because they just got bored, I don’t know. One original member told me it didn’t take him long to figure that Ann Schwab wasn’t going to do anything “real,” like squash the college parking structure, or force people into new urban housing. He agreed with me – this is just about Ann Schwab’s resume, feel-good gestures with regulations that end up affecting private citizens without really fixing anything. 

Look along the highway next time you’re out – she’s banned certain plastic bags, what about all the other garbage you see piling up out there? 

The STF needs to go. We finally have a city manager who is trying to clean house – let’s help him! Write to Brian Nakamura and council and tell them the STF needs to go. 

That’s bnakamura@ci.chico.ca.us, and you can reach the council at dpresson@ci.chico.ca.us

Segregating your phone bill – a sample Sprint bill

19 Jan

Sprint is another cellphone carrier I’ve found to collect Utility User’s Tax.  Notice, on page 5 of 5 of this sample bill, “Denver State-Community Service Taxes,” “Denver County 9-1-1,” and “Denver County-Comm Sales Tax.”  I’m assuming, if this bill were made out for a person living in the  city of Chico, it would say “City Utility User’s Tax.” 

This bill specifically refers to “mobile” service, with no reference to a landline.  

UPDATE:  Looking over these bills later, I couldn’t help but note – reread the arguments that Ann Schwab and Scott Gruendl made in favor of Measure J – they insinuate that the “average” cell bill is $50! Look at these “average” bills I’ve posted – these are based on real bills, for two to three users – $150 a month! 

Scott Gruendl is up for re-election in 2014. We need to call that little prick on his bullshit. 

Also, city manager Brian Nakamura keeps repeating, we “lost” $900,000 with the defeat of Measure J. But at last month’s Finance Committee meeting, Hennessy reported the loss for fiscal year 2011-12 was only $500,000, after  the N&R quoted her office boy Frank Fields as estimating it at $600,000 back in November.

Is our city manager just making stuff up?