A Public Service message for Rhode Islanders
I loved living in Rhode Island. Where others might have been embarrassed by the corruption of our municipal and state governments, I was more-or-less amused by it.
That is, until the long arm of Rhode Island’s treasury reached into my pocket yesterday. Now I don’t find the crookedness so amusing. Here’s the deal:
The non-crooked part:
I moved out of Rhode Island in June 2001. In July 2001 we paid what we thought was the last of our vehicle tax bill, and never heard anything further about a vehicle tax.
Turns out, Rhode Island bills you for your vehicle tax at the end of the year.
Therefore: When we paid in July 2001, we were paying for the use of our car in the year 2000. We were not billed for 2001 until July 2002 – but by that time we were no longer at our old address. Even if the state did send a bill, it would not have been forwarded to us.
Okay, fine, that's an honest error and it results in a bill.
But here’s the crooked part:
Rhode Island continues to keep you on the registry rolls until (a) you return your plates, or (b) your registration formally expires, even if you register your car in another state.
Therefore: Not only did they bill us in absentia for 2001 – they also billed us in absentia for 2002, for a car that was actually registered, for all of 2002, in Pennsylvania!
And, of course, we never actually received any bill, since they didn't bother to use the new address they had on file to send us anything.
So we owed that vehicle tax, but didn’t know it. Fine. That much I could accept, and understand that I was in error, and ignorance is no defense and all that.
But here’s the really crooked part:
The state never made any attempt to follow up, until more than five years later, when they hired a collection agency, the Rossi Law firm, in January of 2008, to pursue tax delinquents.
So we received a letter out of the blue yesterday, notifying us that we owe $430 – an original $250 or so for our tax, plus almost $180 in interest.
You see, the Rhode Island General Law includes the following lines:
(d) As soon after this as possible, the tax collector shall cause excise bills to be sent by first class mail to all persons, corporations, partnerships, joint stock companies, or associations that have registered vehicles or trailers during the calendar year of proration. The bills shall be paid in accordance with § 44-5-7 at the same time and on the same schedule as property tax bills. Failure to pay the excise at the appropriated time shall bring about a penalty of eighteen percent (18%) per annum…
(e) Failure by the tax collector to send, or by the taxpayer to receive, a bill shall not excuse the nonpayment of the tax or affect its validity or any proceedings for the collection.
That's right: They can wait as long as they like, 5 years or 10 or 15 or 20, make no attempt to find you, and then send you a bill when the interest hits an amount they like.
This is what bothers me – the original bill, I can deal with. But charging interest on a debt, when you never made a good faith effort to notify the debtor of the debt, is just wrong.
So let your Rhode Island friends know: If they ever leave the state, they had better contact the DMV and make sure they know what they owe, and what they need to do. Otherwise, they should be prepared to pay up later, with interest.