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City accountants regret license mess

Mountain View owners didn't get initial notice of higher business license fees

Mountain View's finance department is sending out a mass apology after thousands of local businesses were sent letters warning they were delinquent in paying a new fee.

The pink warning letters were mailed in mid-March to about 2,700 businesses, or roughly two-thirds of the licensed businesses in the city. Business owners were notified in the letter that they were behind $3 on their license payments. If the business didn't immediately rectify the unpaid bill, owners would face additional fines or penalties, the letters said.

Mountain View resident Mike Lehner said he was baffled as he read the notice sent to his wife Jennifer's health consulting business. He felt like the city was about to revoke their license.

"This was the first we heard about this," he said. "It gave us less than a week's notice, and it said it was the second and final notice, but we never received anything before."

So in late March, Lehner went to City Hall with his wallet, and he found he wasn't alone. A crowd of other frustrated business owners was lining up outside the Finance Department office, angry about the abrupt warnings over $3. City staff seemed to be struggling to control the livid group, he said.

The city did offer an online payment system, but many business owners were miffed that they would be charged a $1.25 convenience fee for using it.

Finance Director Patty Kong agreed it was quite the mess. The last week of March her team had to deal with hundreds of irate business owners, in person and over the phone.

"It was an unfortunate event that this had gone out in this manner," she said. "There were quite a few people who had thought they had paid their licenses already."

The problem, Kong said, was the city's automated software for sending out notices. The system was set up so it didn't send out notices for amounts less than $5 until they were delinquent. For that reason, an initial notice that was supposed to go out in January was never actually sent out, she said.

While the businesses still needed to pay the fee, Kong admitted her department had dropped the ball by not giving ample notice. The final-warning letters were also poorly worded, she said, making it seem like business owners were on the cusp of penalties. In late March, her office sent out thousands of apology letters that tried to clarify the situation.

The new fee being levied on all businesses comes as part of new state legislation intended to increase disability access. Starting in October 2017, all California business license-holders were charged an additional $1, and this fee increased to $4 at the start of 2018.

Kong said all businesses with licenses valid for 2018 are required to pay the new state surcharge, regardless of whether they paid their license fees months earlier.

About 1,600 businesses have paid the new state fee, according to the Finance Department.

Comments

152 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 12, 2018 at 3:03 pm

It's easy (and a defensive reflex) to blame "the city's automated software," as Finance Director Kong is quoted as doing above. But that's culpable evasive nonsense. "Software" merely executes rules put into it explicitly by humans. People under City pay set up the software, tested it, and approved it (including choosing to neglect sending the necessary initial notices; including choosing the now-regretted phrasing of the "final-warning letters").

How about stop playing blame-the-computer (a gambit that's really getting stale, after more than 50 years) and own up honestly to shoddy work and/or flawed process?


142 people like this
Posted by MyOpinion
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2018 at 3:04 pm

The City of MV is slow as molasses and sloppy. Remember this poor woman overcharged for her water bill? What happened to her? The City in that case, said it was a 'mystery' why she was overbilled. Web Link
If these types of errors happened in private industry someone would be held accountable, not so for public servants. Reminds me of 'Who's on First' Web Link


143 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Apr 12, 2018 at 3:08 pm

"The new fee being levied on all businesses comes as part of new state legislation intended to increase disability access."

QUESTION MV VOICE:
What, specifically, is the City of MV going to do with the roughly $4000/year it collects for this purpose?
How are they going to increase disability access with that amount of money?


24 people like this
Posted by Jerry
a resident of North Whisman
on Apr 12, 2018 at 4:02 pm

Like many others I got a "2nd final notice" about the $3 fee. Like others, I had my license in hand. So I called and a very polite woman explained and apologized. As annoying as things like this can be, let's keep things in perspective. I paid the $4.25 as fast as I could. I've got bigger and better problems to struggle with. Having consulted to public sector for years, I can tell you that their work is incredibly complicated and constrained by regulations from every agency in this corner of the galaxy. This was frustrating, but not fatal. The City owned their part in the problem and took steps to fix things. So let's move on. And, please, let's not make a mountain out of a mole hill. Let's save the vitriol for something really serious.


96 people like this
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 12, 2018 at 4:48 pm

City staff seems to have little or no accountability. Unless it is a new apartment building or hotel, everything else takes forever or not at all. They are moribund in regulations and due process. We are a small city we should be able to do better. The council needs to manage the city manager better, demand goals, metrics and benchmarking. Underperforming staff needs to be counseled out.


81 people like this
Posted by Concerned2
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 12, 2018 at 4:53 pm

It would be cheaper for the city to appropriate the $$$ out for the city budget compared to staff time billing and collecting such a small amount.


90 people like this
Posted by MyOpinion
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2018 at 5:07 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


41 people like this
Posted by Ted
a resident of Monta Loma
on Apr 12, 2018 at 5:47 pm

@Jerry,

In 2016 signed and mailed the yearly form stating I was no longer in business. I keep getting billed regardless. And this is in spite of the fact that there is no legal requirement to tell the city you are no longer in business.

Have fun in the land of marsh mellows, cream pies and lollipops, but from my many experiences as a business owner the bottom line is the city is run mostly by incompetent and over paid employees. Case at point, the city just applied an insecticide at Monta Loma park's baseball field. The sign read for the area of application: "Litlle Leage out fild and Big Fild to"
Don't believe me, head over and check it out.


9 people like this
Posted by BusinessOwner
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2018 at 11:13 pm

Effectively, they raised the business license fee retroactively.

Considering the money spent to mail out the delinquency notices and the apology letters, they could not have made much money. Seems like it would have been better to not charge the $3.

The business license fees are due on Dec 1 for the following year. If they had been due on Jan 1, that would have given the city an extra month to print the correct fees on the license renewal forms.


2 people like this
Posted by AllYouCanEat
a resident of Monta Loma
on Apr 13, 2018 at 11:18 am

#iDontBelieveYouPattyKong!


4 people like this
Posted by Steven Nelson
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Apr 13, 2018 at 2:13 pm

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

Like @Jerry of North Whisman, I've always found the Finance Department, under Patty Kong's direction, an efficient government service provider. She (IMO) is very good and has, along with her employees, tried to run a TRANSPARENT process (the MV Budget process is wonderful).

So - everybody gets an occasional (very occasional) big error, IF they fix it quickly. I think the MV Finance Director has done this satisfactorily.


9 people like this
Posted by Greg David
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 13, 2018 at 7:52 pm

Greg David is a registered user.

The biggest unanswered question is how much is it costing the city to collect this $3 for the state? Just the two letters sent out to date clearly cost more than $3 in printing, postage, and administrative costs. What should have happened is the city should have simply paid out the $10K or so to the state out of their $50M surplus OR just add the $3 to next year's business license renewals. Myself, I refuse to pay a retroactive fee like this, no matter how large or small. Let's see how much the city spends to collect $3 from me......


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