It turns out that Cheltenham Township, the municipality where I live across the northern Philadelphia border, incurs an extra earned income tax on top of the state and federal taxes that I’m used to paying. This would have been fine if I’d had any idea that such a tax existed, or if it had been automatically deducted from my payroll (everyone I got a paycheck from in 2022 used Justworks), or if Turbotax had let me know that this was something I needed to do. As it turned out, I didn’t have any idea until I got a letter in the mail this morning, it wasn’t deducted from my payroll, and Turbotax gave me the impression that I was done with my taxes, so I was inadvertently delinquent on my taxes until I paid them and the associated late fees tonight.
This isn’t, by the way, a post about being mad about paying tax! I like taxes. I want to pay for great community infrastructure like public schools, community fire departments, integrated public transit, and so on. I want those things to work when I pay for them, but I’m delighted to do so. (Please also let me pay for single-payer healthcare. I’m begging you.)
Also worth saying: I work in a well-paying industry and should pay tax at a higher rate than people who earn less than me. I welcome this with open arms. Tax me well! And then use that money to pay for vital infrastructure for my whole community.
Here’s what I don’t want: to not pay my taxes because I didn’t know they existed and didn’t know to look for extra earned income taxes. That doesn’t feel good.
What also doesn’t feel good: tax collection in Cheltenham has, for some reason, been outsourced to a private company called Berkheimer Tax Innovations, which has a website that looks like it was built in Microsoft Frontpage in 1998, which you appear to be forced to use to file those taxes if you want to do it online. They also have an app — Berkapp — which lets you e-file by writing out your tax return by hand and then taking a picture of it.
It’s baffling to me that a local government should outsource its tax collection to a private company in this way — particularly one that provides such a bad service at the taxpayer side. Presumably they have a hefty contract with the township, or perhaps even a cut of transmitted funds, which could have been better used on a more open system. Again, I’m not objecting to the taxes themselves, but I’m extremely grumpy about how I was notified, how I had to file them, and the arrangement underlying how they are collected and paid. (I’ve come to understand that the county chooses this arrangement, even though the county itself does not levy these taxes. What?!)
What I’d love to see: a well-designed local government portal that lets me log in, see all my local services and responsibilities, and notifies me of everything I need to know about living here as it comes up. I’d love the software and infrastructure to be owned and developed by the township, or more likely as an open source endeavor by an alliance of townships, rather than outsourced. Give me some Code for America-influenced 21st century public service web software. Let me pay any fees — earned income taxes, trash pickup, whatever — straight from the portal. Let me volunteer from there, too. A real community hub.
Done well, this could be less expensive than private contracts to weird third-party companies with terrible websites. It could be more open and participative, and actually involve civic participation in its code from people who live here. It could drive awareness and ownership and help build local skills.
Instead, we got … whatever the hell this is. It’s incredibly broken. And surely someone at the township has got to know how terrible it is.