Everybody wants a cut. The feds tax your income. The state charges for your registration and title. And the towns charge excise tax. I don’t mind paying taxes. They pay for our infrastructure, our roads, and our law enforcement and fire departments who help us in a crash. But I do mind paying more than my fair share. Protection from excessively low speed limits and speedtraps intended to generate revenue rather than keep us safe is a big reason many of us use radar detectors. Another way towns get more money out of you than they should is the way they handle collecting excise taxes when you move.

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It all started with the Ford Focus I “inherited” from my wife after she bought her Flex. In truth, we were keeping it in the family to be my winter beater, keep my BRZ out of the snow and salt, and to become our rallycross car. My insurance rates are lower than hers and I was now the primary driver, so she sold it to me for a dollar. Two months later, a good friend of ours had her car totaled, and despite insurance she couldn’t afford to replace it. We didn’t really need the Focus, and we wouldn’t have made any money from selling it anyway, so we gave it to her last November. Then we moved to our house in another town and lived happily ever after.

OK, not exactly. A family emergency led to us spending nearly two weeks in Montreal last month. When we got back and I was catching up on mail, I found a nastygram from the town of Acton, MA – an “Officer’s Final Delivery Notice.” It demanded that I pay my overdue excise tax on the Focus immediately, or else I would go into non-renewal status with the Registry of Motor Vehicles. This doesn’t revoke anything, but it prevents me from renewing my license or registrations until I address this issue. By the time we got home, it was already past the due date.

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The problem is, this was the very first notice I had received from the Town of Acton about the excise tax. Like I said, I don’t mind paying the tax. I only owned it for two months and it was practically worthless, so the amount of tax I owed was a whopping $7.81. I spend more than that on lunch most days. Had I received a bill for it, I would’ve laughed, then paid it immediately. But I never got a bill. Yes, I’d moved out of town, but I’d arranged mail forwarding. I got all of my other mail, but no excise tax bill. I transferred the registration from the Focus to Project MJ at my new address, and they already had the information on my BRZ from past taxes. They could’ve easily run my plates to get my current address. But no – my first notice was also my final one. And because I hadn’t paid the bill they never sent me, my $7.81 tax had ballooned to $52.20, more than six times the original bill. They had six months to send me a bill, but didn’t bother until now. And because I didn’t pay it during the short time window while I was in Canada, tack on an extra $20 to the RMV to get me out of non-renewal status once the tax is paid.

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Photo credit: Forbes

This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this issue. It happened to me many years ago, when I moved from Framingham to Marlborough. Once again, a $5 tax turned into a $50 thanks to late fees because I was never billed. And I do mean never – I only found out that I owed excise tax when I tried to renew my registration and wasn’t allowed.

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And it’s not just me. It turns out my wife is in exactly the same situation, thanks to her Flex having been registered in Fitchburg for a few months before we moved. She never got billed, so it never got paid, and now we’re both in non-renewal status. Needless to say, this is making registering our new trailer slightly complicated.

I don’t want to be a tax evader. That’s how they took down Capone – imagine what that would do to a generally law abiding citizen like me. But bad laws and bad procedures can make lawbreakers and tax evaders out of anyone. Naturally, we have every intention of paying – I’m not arguing against paying the tax. My problem is the inefficient methods at least three Massachusetts towns are using to multiply small taxes into larger ones.

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Is this just laziness? Or do towns do this intentionally to squeeze more money out of us? Has anyone else in Massachusetts (or elsewhere) had this problem?

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