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Exposing City Hall's Abusive Relationship with LA’s Residents

RETHINKING LA - City Hall’s habit of sending demanding letters alleging unpaid fees and taxes that quickly accumulate late fees, penalties, and fines that result in bills that double, triple and quadruple within weeks is all evidence of its abusive relationship with its battered residents. Two months ago, a mid-city homeowner opened the mailbox on a Friday afternoon to find a demand letter from the Department of Finance and instructions to appear at a “hearing” the following Monday. The “hearing” consisted of a face-to-face meeting with a clerk who sat behind bullet-proof glass and repeated the simple phrase “You need to pay your bill!”

The resident was able to wrangle a 10 day extension and spent the time pulling paperwork together in an attempt to prove that the $10K bill, now doubled due to penalties and late fees, was a mistake.

The paperwork was turned in, the holiday season came and went, and the Department of Finance was mysteriously silent. No response, no revised bill, no phone calls, no summons to another “hearing,” nothing.

Finally, two months after the original hearing, the frenzied Angeleno called the Department of Finance only to get a verbal response from the clerk that the account indicated a balance due of zero. A request for a written resolution of the case was rejected.

This story of a huge demand letter coupled with the threat of penalties, late fees, and fines that can trigger “garnishment, liens, and other legal actions” is evidence that the residents of LA are in an abusive relationship with City Hall.

Most distressing is City Hall’s refusal to put the current “forgiven” status in writing, leaving the resident living under a cloud of self-doubt, signs of an abusive relationship.  

Consider the Angelenos who take temporary work where they can, working as contractors and getting paid flat rates with no deductions, a working relationship that results in a 1099 form to the IRS.

It was a local Tax Preparer who first noticed that LA’s Department of Finance was sending demand letters to people who work as contractors and receive 1099 forms documenting their earnings. Finance sends demand letters that are based on the assumption that the individual was actually a “business” and not simply an individual employee getting paid a flat rate with no employer contributions.

The letters demanded thousands of dollars, calculated using loose assumptions that extrapolated tax liability based on 1099 earnings reported to the IRS, an abuse of power that wasn’t based on fact but was simply a wide net cast over the most vulnerable of LA’s workforce.

Anywhere else in town, an unjustified demand for money combined with a threat to seize property for noncompliance would qualify as extortion.

But when it comes from City Hall it’s simply another city department engaged in fulfilling the Mayor’s cost-recovery mandate with behavior that is cavalier and abusive, if not illegal.

Again, the harassment and threats are coupled with demands, then they go away, followed by a refusal to issue a written documentation of the “forgiven” status. Signs of an abusive relationship.

Consider the property owners who find themselves victimized by Code Harassment that starts with fees, fines, and penalties and results in letters from the City Attorney threatening “garnishment, liens, and other legal action.”

LA’s Bureau of Building & Safety argues that it is bound by law to investigate any complaints, allowing the department to become a “tool” of self-appointed Code Harassment vigilantes who selectively apply the law and demonstrate the folly of a system that is driven by complaints rather than standards.

On Normandie Avenue in East Hollywood, there are four homes in a row. Three of the homes have been cited for their fences, resulting in great distress to the property owners, while the fourth house is occupied by squatters who live there with zero intervention from the City of LA.

While the taxpaying property owners on Normandie fight their way through the bureaucratic morass, the squatters continue to live in a home that is one of the 1700 Rent Escrow Account Properties (REAP) controlled by the City of LA’s Housing Department.

While the City of LA has declared a moratorium on the Code Harassment behavior, the residents want written assurance that they no longer live under threats of “garnishment, liens, and other legal action.”

Again, written threats followed by a refusal to put the “forgiven” status in writing, leaving LA residents living under a cloud of fear and doubt, signs of an abusive relationship.

In an ideal world, City Hall exists to administer the delivery of city services to the people of the city.

But in LA, the relationship has been flipped, justified by City Hall’s need to balance its budget on the backs of the people who invest their lives, their money, and their energy in the City of Angeles.

LA‘s budget hearings are on the horizon and department head after department head will soon justify their existence and their headcount, pleading for their survival based on their ability to generate revenue by squeezing the people they purport to serve.

Long gone is the mission to improve the quality of life by delivering city services to the people of LA, now the mandate is full cost recovery and the focus is on the collection, regardless of its validity.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at:


Tags: Stephen Box, Building and Safety, City Hall, Department of Finance, Los Angles

Vol 10 Issue 7
Pub: Jan 24, 2012