bill_washington (Photo credit: David Guo's Master)
Nobody likes to pay taxes.
Robert Fernandes, of Forks Township, Pennsylvania, wants people to know exactly how much he doesn't like paying his taxes. Last week, the father of three took his wife and children - and $7,143.54 in cash - to the tax collector. He paid the township tax bill in single dollar bills. And, just to make sure that he made his point, he posted the whole thing on YouTube:
Fernandes made his public statement to protest money that he claims is being "stolen" since he does not wish to "voluntarily" pay for services that he doesn't believe he benefits his family. Specifically, Fernandes' young children (ages 1, 4 and 7) are not enrolled in a brick and mortar school in the school district: Fernandes' wife is currently homeschooling the children. He said about the tax, "We don't even use the public system, yet I am being forced to pay all this money into a public school system. I don't think that's really either fair or just or even ethical. It would be the equivalent if McDonald's were to force vegetarians to pay for their cheeseburgers."
Well, er, McDonald's would force vegetarians to pay for cheeseburgers if they opted to show up at the restaurant and order them - even if they didn't eat them. And that's kind of what Fernandes did. These property taxes didn't sneak up on him: he moved to the district last year in search of lower property taxes. That should mean that he did a little bit of research before putting in the offer for his home - at least enough to know the tax rates. And he didn't accidentally land in Forks Township: he voluntarily moved his entire family to the township after snatching up a house at a short sale.
But that notwithstanding, Fernandes' claims that he doesn't benefit from the school district ring a bit hollow. Under Pennsylvania law, families who homeschool are still considered part of the school district where they live - in some districts, home schooled children are allowed access to the schools for extracurricular programs like art, music and sports. Even if students don't take advantage of school-related activities, they are still tied to the district: as part of Act 169 (PA's homeschooling law), parents must file an affidavit with the superintendent of the school district of residence at the beginning of the homeschooling period for evaluation purposes. Each year, parents must submit each student's portfolio of records and materials including log of instructional time, standardized test results, and annual written evaluation of educational progress (24 P.S. 1-102); this is to ensure compliance with Pennsylvania's compulsory attendance laws. In other words, even if Fernandes' children aren't physically present at a district school building, they are still under the administrative oversight of the district - and that means there is work to be done on their behalf.
Even if you don't buy the argument that Fernandes is benefiting from the direct services of the district, it's a tough argument to make that public education doesn't benefit society. In fact, one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, loudly championed the idea of a public school system paid for by tax dollars. Jefferson felt that a well-educated population was the key to a successful democracy, saying:
[W]herever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.
And sure, it costs money to provide public education. But what is the greater cost in not providing an education? According to a study published in The New York Times, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention. Factoring in lost tax revenues (since dropouts earn less than high school graduates), welfare payments (since dropouts are more likely to depend on public benefits) and other associated costs, the estimated collective cost to taxpayers - those of us who have to make up the difference - is $292,000 over the working life of each high school dropout. By the numbers, it costs more to have an uneducated population than an educated one.
That said, if, like Fernandes, you believe that there is no benefit to you as a taxpayer from a public education system, Fernandes still got it wrong: protesting at the township level didn't make the right statement since the township doesn't make the rules or set the school budget. Their job is simply to collect the tax, as Forks Township tax collector, Anne Bennett-Morse, reminded him. Clearly, however, Fernandes was in the mood to make Bennett-Morse do her job: when she asked Fernandes if they could have the money counted at a bank, Fernandes balked, saying, "They expect me to work hard for it and other people to work hard for their money, but they can't even count it in the place that they collect it." Bennett-Morse defended her question, noting that she did not have a problem counting the bills but that she did not want to inconvenience other taxpayers. To put her burden into perspective, if she counted $1 per second, it would take her nearly two hours to count $7,143 in single bills - and that's without a break.
As for that "visual" that Fernandes so desperately wants people to have, here's a quick summary of what Bennett-Morse faced: according to the U.S. Treasury a dollar bill is .0043 inches thick and there are 490 notes to a pound, meaning that a stack of 7,143 one dollar bills would be 30.7 inches thick and weigh 14.6 pounds.
Fernandes figures that if folks understood how much they were actually paying in taxes, they would protest, too. He believes that most taxpayers don't know how much tax they're actually paying since homeowners with mortgages tend to escrow their real estate and school taxes and pay monthly; that sounds terribly patronizing. I would venture to say that most homeowners know more about the totals of their real estate and school taxes than they do about other hidden (or nearly hidden) taxes like sales taxes and excise taxes on utilities, gas and alcohol.
So what does Fernandes hope to accomplish with his statement? "I'm hoping people see this video and do the same thing: stop paying in their escrow and mortgage and start paying taxes the way I did."
By law, (Section 31 U.S.C. 5103), you certainly can do that: "United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues." I suspect, however, that tax collectors everywhere wish you wouldn't.
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