Monday, October 26, 1998

Taxation blues had me seeing red

But negotiations softened blow of hike in evaluation


Most people would tell you that turquoise is a soothing color — reminiscent of the ocean or the sky. But to an entrepreneur, it is the color of fear — the two-inch-long, aquamarine certification stamp on an envelope containing the court judgment or tax assessment which will blow your business to smithereens.

It is a warm Friday morning when such an envelope arrives in my office. The postman has a crooked smile on his face as he snaps his wrist and lets fly the rectangular envelope which cuts through the air and lands with a thud on the desk.

One glance at the certification stamp tells me it's trouble. Visions of an early start to the weekend dissipate. As he awaits my signature, the postie, this purveyor of doom, senses he's dealt me a wicked blow - the same kind of power exerted by sanitation workers who block motorists on the street as they hoist smelly garbage bags into the maw of their truck.

All eyes in the office are on me. I have a serious decision to make - open the envelope and learn my fate or ignore it until Monday morning, deluding myself into one last glorious weekend before autumn's frigid blast.

I shove the envelope into a desk drawer. I know from experience that regular-sized, white No. 10 envelopes from government bodies usually hold innocuous material - election notices, receipts or public works notices. The bureaucrats save these 9 1/2-inch-by-six-inch bullets for real nasty news - tax assessments, building code violations and seizures.

I fight the impulse to rip open the envelope. Within two hours, I've come to my senses - convinced I must face the problem "like a man." But I promise myself that no matter what the notice says, I'll deal with it on Monday, leaving the weekend to R & R.

Using a letter opener, I slit the dreaded envelope with great delicacy, slipping its contents out. The blood rushes to my face. I imagine my cholesterol count in orbit as the adrenaline spurts through my body. It's Flight or Fight.

The City of Cote St. Luc is telling me that the Montreal Urban Community's commercial evaluation division has raised the rental value of my premises by more than $5,000. As a result, the City of Cote St. Luc finance department is claiming an extra $2,000 in business tax.

Goodbye fun. Au revoir R & R. Adiós frivolity. This is war! I grab for my black-jacketed copy of The Art of War by Sun-tzu. "One who speaks deferentially but increases his preparation will advance. One who speaks belligerently and advances hastily will retreat."

I'm inspired. My palms are sweaty, my heart is pounding. I'm not in touch-tone mode as I jab the keypad on my phone. "Hello Mr. Ponctuation Grafix," comes the cheerful response at the other end of the line in the finance department of Cote St. Luc. "I just sent out the invoices yesterday and was expecting your call."

Laura Trihas has the benefit of call display and is obviously ready for me. "When I sent out the invoice, I said: 'Oh my G-d, I feel so bad.' I know how tough it is for small businesses."

How is it that my tax rental value has shot up by more than $5,000?

The answer, I'm told, is that the owner of the building where my office is located inadvertently provided inaccurate square footage to MUC evaluators in previous years. It turns out that I have 319 square feet more than I was invoiced, which explains part of the $2,000 tax increase. No argument with that logic. Bigger space, more taxes to pay.

However, when the MUC learned that my office was larger, they also decided to change the evaluation per square foot. I find their actions are illogical and unfair. Why should the value per square foot increase because the size has increased? The office is in the same location and in the same condition as it has been for the last seven years.

Ms. Trihas is most understanding and suggests I appeal to the MUC. Within 40 minutes, I am at the MUC's commercial evaluation office at the corner of Rosemount and St. Denis.

The door of the MUC's ground-floor suite is locked. A bespectacled middle-aged blonde lady named Rejeane Simard stares at me from within a shatter-proof plexiglass cage inside the locked office.

She looks startled. Does she have visions of Robert de Niro in the movie Taxi Driver? Is vigilante justice at hand? After a slight hesitation, she buzzes me into a small waiting room with a pitted carpet. I spit out my sad tale in staccato French, pressing my face against the thick plexiglass cage which encapsulates her. I can't tell whether she is more shocked by my accent or my high state of dudgeon.

Ms. Simard grabs her telephone and calls for reinforcements.

A closed-circuit camera surveys my every move. I note the dust motes on the sparse furnishings and particled burns in the dirty carpet as I await the tax police.

Fifteen minutes later, a cool dude saunters in. His name is Michel St-Pierre and his title is Evaluator. Thirty-something, brown hair and beard, black jeans with a gold chain dangling from his neck. It's a sunny Friday afternoon and, to my surprise, he seems more anxious than I am to settle this matter.

I suggest I am willing to pay only for the extra space - the rate per square foot will remain essentially the same as it was before. In effect, the assessment will be cut by almost half if my proposal is accepted. If not, I'm ready to fight like a tiger in a court of law, I tell him.

Mr. St-Pierre is disarmingly malleable, explaining that the MUC evaluators want to be fair. They're open to negotiating a settlement. He has to have the compromise approved by his boss.

Three weeks later, I receive written notice that the MUC has accepted my proposal. Three cheers from my staff and a grin on the postie's face. Addendum to Sun-tzu's Art of War: "Wage your battles on warm Friday afternoons when all the world is your friend."

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.