Our world is needlessly complicated. Honestly. I just spent five days trying to decipher HTML code to unscramble a digital file, fraught with errors. I could only allow myself to peck carefully at the weird strings of symbols because I had made several copies of this horrible file and scattered them around my virtual desktop. I’d open one now and then, just to be certain my tinkering hadn’t mysteriously migrated, and that I could always revert back to the original mess.
Having been unhappily submerged in this crazy world, where a single misplaced bracket can throw a 200-page manuscript into chaos, I should have been prepared for my early morning conversation with a clerk from the Albemarle County Tax Department. It seems the department was displeased not once, but twice with my business tax form submission.
The form was returned to me the first time with a terse complaint that my handwriting was illegible. I’ve been dealing with this particular criticism since third grade, so I sighed and, in block print, noted the one piece of equipment which I actually purchased and understood as taxable: a 2009 Mac laptop which runs so slowly it enables me, many times daily, to practice my Kabot-Zinn deep breathing. I did not, however, tally in the printer I got free when I purchased this computer, five years ago. Make sense? It did to me, not to the tax office. Here’s how our conversation went, roughly:
Me (cheerfully): Hi, you emailed me yesterday. I'm getting back in touch.
Tax Clerk (nasal twang, guns loaded, script memorized): Let’s see. Ms. Cail, you must assign a fair market value to each and every piece of equipment you use in your business. You may have gotten the printer free, but the printer has a fair market value, and this fair market value must be reported on the form
Tax Clerk (continuing): You probably, even if you are a small business, have other pieces of equipment. I see you are a writer. Do you have a calculator or a tape dispenser? Do you own a stapler?
Me: Are you joking?
Tax Clerk: No ma’am.
Me: Okay, I have a stapler. I use it to staple business papers. I also use it to staple cat food bags and, when I am desperate, to fix the hems of pants. It isn’t a dedicated business stapler.
Tax Clerk: It doesn’t matter how and when you use the stapler outside of your business. This is an item you use within your business, and it must therefore be reported along with similar items. You need not file an amended return if you purchased the stapler before 2013.
Me: Are you a real person?
And so on. I felt like I was in a Saturday Night Live skit.
Our call ended with me deep breathing, Kabot-Zinn style, and promising like a Girl Scout to fill out the form a third time, properly and completely, and with the clerk helpfully offering to fax me a new form.
“I don’t own a fax machine,” I said. “Could you email it? Or could you snail-mail it for another 49 cents? It would bring the County's total investment in this one form, not counting paper and printing costs, to $1.47.”
Here, then, is my inventory of business equipment. Writing is a cheap business. I hope the monies gained through taxing these items will exceed the hourly rate of the clerk who must duly enter them into record:
- a stapler
- a Mac laptop and free printer
- a pencil holder and about five pencils
- a wire basket for letters I plan not to answer
- a thick bathmat to keep my cat from shredding my legs with his incessant biscuit-making
- a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, stamped by the Cady Street library of Northfield, Michigan
- a pencil sharpener, not electric
- a pair of scissors
Any wonder why we pay so much in taxes and seem to get so little for it?