Editorial: How to tax a taxpayer’s patience

Editorial Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

WHAT is the longest time you’ve had to wait to perform one of your duties as a citizen?

Mine was six hours, which was how long it took to vote in the Philippines’ first automated elections in May 2010. It did take nearly a year to get my driver’s license card in 2018 and I had to travel to a different city to get my passport that same year but I was partly responsible for those situations. And in all three cases, I felt pleased by the eventual outcome.

Last week was different. Last Thursday, we spent four hours paying our real property taxes and spent most of that time inside an airconditioned room packed with people. Not the smartest choice in the midst of a pandemic.

What is the feeling your local government wants you to have when you have just done something useful? Would it be unrealistic to hope that they’d want you to feel pleased? Is it silly to think they would want you to feel good and perhaps even look forward to paying your taxes again?

The town where my mother has lived for more than 40 years grants a 20 percent discount if you pay for next year’s realty tax before the current year has ended. This is a good idea, which has encouraged her to pay early whenever she can. So, we went to the municipal hall two days before Christmas last year. As instructed, we went to a counter at the assessor’s office and handed over last year’s receipt. Then we were told to return in early January. We were advised to call a few days before our appointment to find out how much the realty tax bill would be.

This was the town’s way of ensuring that the crowd would be small enough to allow for physical distancing. It made sense. An employee could have retrieved our property record when we went last December and told us within minutes what our 2021 bill would be. But perhaps they didn’t want people to wait there and linger. There is a pandemic, after all, and an entire team of municipal workers to protect. Apart from constituents.

We did not worry days later when a busy signal met my mother’s every attempt to call the municipal government. I lost track of the number of times she tried to call but I can assure you, my mother is persistent. But that did not trigger any alarm bell. Of course, the municipal government was busy. Plenty to do! Besides, there were five working days between our first visit and the appointment schedule we were given. Surely, we thought, someone would have had the time to retrieve our records and compute this year’s realty tax before our appointment.

On the appointed date, we waited 2.5 hours to hand over last year’s receipt. Again. At one point, my mother asked someone behind the line of counters in the treasurer’s office why it had been an hour since they last called five priority numbers to come forward. This was the answer she got: “Ana gyud na, Ma’am. (That’s just the way it is, Ma’am.)” It took about another hour before our turn to pay came. All told, along with the wait for the receipt, the transaction lasted four hours.

The only positive observation I can make about this whole ordeal was that whoever minded the town’s Facebook page, they responded to questions quickly and courteously. It probably isn’t easy to show up at the municipal hall and face hundreds of constituents every day, and I am grateful that they continue to work and make basic services available. But I do hope they will find ways to make transactions easier and safer for more people.

The national government has been talking about making online payments available since 2014. We can now book passport appointments, order birth certificate copies, and pay for National Bureau of Investigation clearances online. Since this pandemic began, the use of mobile wallets and mobile banking has picked up, and companies that adapted have benefited. Which local governments have kept up with the changing needs of their constituents?


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