Kevin Riordan: The City of Philadelphia goes after another small target

"This is so discouraging to anyone who would want to come to Philadelphia," Stephen Dunn said of "bureaucratic craziness."
"This is so discouraging to anyone who would want to come to Philadelphia," Stephen Dunn said of "bureaucratic craziness."
Posted: August 07, 2011

Perhaps perceiving Pulitzer as a synonym for jackpot, the City of Philadelphia recently sent prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn a bill for more than $10,000.

"I had no idea what they were talking about," said Dunn, 72, a semiretired distinguished professor at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where he has taught for 37 years.

In 2007, Dunn, whose latest, Here and Now, is his 16th volume of poetry, gave a reading at St. Joseph's University. The event was free and open to the public; he was paid $2,200.

Four years later, the poet was unpleasantly reminded of that spring evening of verse by a code-enforcement complaint for nonpayment of business-privilege taxes from 2003 through 2007, plus fines.

A cool $10,037. Payable now.

Dunn was dumbfounded by the "idiocy" of fines for not reporting work he didn't do, during years when he wasn't "doing anything in the city" at all.

Nevertheless, he and an accountant got busy trying to resolve the matter.

"I don't get a sense of malice," Dunn said. "I do get a sense of bureaucratic craziness."

Daniel Cantu-Hertzler, chair of the Philadelphia Law Department's corporate and tax group, declined to comment on the case.

But he pointed out that the code requires anyone who does business in the city - including nonresidents - to obtain a business-privilege license and pay taxes on the revenue and net income.

But how could a $2,200 paycheck generate such a gargantuan obligation?

"The purpose of the fines is to compel people to file returns and pay any taxes due," Cantu-Hertzler said. "If people pay when they are billed or respond when they are sued, and remove the need for hefty fines, then it's generally possible to settle for substantially less."

Dunn, whose Different Hours won the 2001 Pulitzer for poetry, summarized his efforts to satisfy the city in a May 30 letter to Patricia R. McDermott, deputy administrator of Philadelphia Municipal Court.

He provided his tax records to the Revenue Collection Bureau Inc., a private bill-collection agency for the city, which determined the poet was liable for $113 in business-privilege taxes.

(I left a message with his account representative at Revenue Collection on Thursday but haven't heard back.)

The poet said he "reluctantly paid" an initial $58; another payment was due June 6. That was to cover matters including a $50 licensing fee, which Revenue Collection apparently was willing to reduce to $15.

Dunn, a veteran of hundreds of readings across America, said he had never before encountered a requirement to obtain what amounts to a poetic license.

"It's absurd," he said.

Harriet Goodheart, vice president of communications at St. Joe's, said she was unaware of other poets being sought for nonpayment of Philadelphia taxes - although she noted that part of St. Joe's campus is in Lower Merion.

So if Dunn had spoken on the other side of City Avenue, all would have been forgiven? Just wondering.

Added Goodheart: "We will pursue having a discussion with the city to find some way to resolve this."

Meanwhile, officials at other cultural institutions in Philadelphia also seemed surprised that city regulations would cover a visiting bard.

Dunn sees it as an unwelcome mat, economically and otherwise.

"This is so discouraging to anyone who would want to come to Philadelphia," said the poet, whose work I've admired ever since I took his class at Syracuse University in 1973.

So exemplary were his teachings, in fact, that I came to understand I might best serve the world of letters by reading, rather than writing, poetry.

When I asked Dunn whether he believed the matter could be resolved, he said he hoped so.

But "on principle," he did not make the license payment. Nor did he appear in Municipal Court on July 5 as scheduled.

That explains the notice he has since received of a default judgment against him for the entire $10,073, payable to the folks over at Revenue Collection.

McDermott, who, like the half-dozen other Philadelphia employees I spoke to, was polite and helpful, said she had "flagged [Dunn's case] to go before a judge" for a review.

"It should have gone right to a judge for a determination," she said. The default was entered "because the defendant didn't show."

A former Atlantic County resident who now lives some five hours from Philadelphia in western Maryland, Dunn said he had gotten nothing but a form letter in return for his letter.

"I'm not a scofflaw, or someone who goes around trying to defraud cities," he said.

I wouldn't think so.

Nor would I think Philadelphia has an interest in penalizing poetry.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|