Stupid BS Government Officials Get Away with Everywhere

I don't know if you have ever had to write a check or sent a form to a county assessor, clerk, treasurer or the like.  But the odds are that the forms you were working with did not tell you to send a check to "Loudon County Tax Assessor" but to something like "Mike Cambell, Loudon County Tax Assessor."  There is absolutely no reason the assessor's personal name has to be on the check, or on the forms, or on the letterhead, or on the envelope, or on the return address.  But it is.  Because this is a way that small-scale elected officials have found to get free advertising and name recognition in their next election at taxpayer expense.  It is an advantage they have structured as incumbents against any would-be challengers.

And it has real costs even beyond the artificial limiting of electoral competition.  When the current assessor loses office, or retires, or just gets hit by a bus, all the printed materials in the office have to be thrown away as they all had his or her name on them and are thus obsolete.  All new material has to be printed.   Someone has to go in and manually edit every single form.  The printer has to reset to make a new batch of return address envelopes and such.  The bank needs to be notified that checks to the deposit will be addressed to a different person.  It is crazy.


  1. Ann_In_Illinois:

    When Blagoyevich had to resign as Governor of Illinois due to, ahem, legal difficulties, the State had to spend a lot of money taking down signs all over the tollways - Blago implemented open-road tolling, which is nice to have, but made them put up signs all over the overpasses with his name on them.

  2. Monsyne Dragon:

    Yah, this struck me recently when paying my property taxes. Here you make the check out to: Someguys Name, XYZ, PDQ, OFL (Other Funny Letters). It doesn't even need to say "Blahblah Local Tax Assesor" on it. I just kept thinking "I'm *assuming* there's something in place to keep this dude from walking away with check and cashing it elsewhere, right?" (probably. I hope.)

    Still it rubs me the wrong way. Possibly because I have an amateur interest in history, and this brings up echoes of Roman tax farming in my mind.

  3. Bloke in North Dorset:

    The real question is why are you still in the 3rd world filling in paper forms and sending checks?

  4. Matthew Slyfield:

    Because many local governments won't take electronic payments. Hell, some of the more obnoxious ones (Ferguson Mo) won't even take checks. I've seen several stories that only of the ways Ferguson ups revenue is that tickets must be paid in cash and in person, and they will close the payment window with people standing in line to pay. Couldn't pay your parking ticket on time because the window closed with two people still ahead of you. Sucks to be you, now you face an arrest warrant and extra fines and court costs.

  5. craftman:

    I'm in Colorado - I'm simply writing checks to "Jefferson County Clerk", etc. No names. Hey we got something right!

    Also to the person who wondered why you send in checks...most government offices charge the 3-4% convenience fee for credit payments. I know it would just get rolled into the cost of doing business like it does in retail, but it still feels like a monopolistic play on their part.

  6. mx:

    The convenience fee is often required by law. If a law or regulation sets a fee for a particular government service at, say, $25, the government needs to receive $25 from you. If a middleman takes out a couple percent, you've just paid less than required for the service.

  7. ColoComment:

    I, too, am in Colorado, and (unless they've changed procedures in the last few months) the state vehicle registration division has no cap, no maximum, on the "convenience fee" it charges for a credit card charge for an initial and/or renewal vehicle registration. I registered a purchase of a used motor home last year & the "convenience fee" for putting that on my Visa card would have been hundreds of dollars. So I took my paperwork & left, to return later with my paper checkbook.

    And it's why I U.S. mail them paper checks every year to renew the MH and my personal vehicle. And yes, I make it payable to "Larimer County Clerk".

    FYI also, a very few states have no cap on the "convenience fee" charged when you pay for their annual corporate reports (often calculated on the company's authorized capital or that state's allocation of business revenues, which can result in big tax & fee amounts), so when I'm filing those for my company I submit them in paper, with a paper check. The states, too, often want you to make the payee "PERSON NAME, State Treasurer," but I've never had a check refused when simply made out to, by way of example only, "Nebraska State Treasurer."

  8. John O.:

    I'm from the government and I'm here to help you help me with my police department's budget!

  9. John O.:

    I could image the money being embezzled when a taxpayer doesn't write out the full title instead pays it just the person's name.

  10. Matthew Slyfield:

    And the municipal court's budget, and the city's administrative budget.

  11. Matthew Slyfield:

    "the State had to spend a lot of money taking down signs all over the tollways"

    I spent 15 years commuting from Kenosha WI to Oakbrook IL for work. I have an I-Pass. I'm not going to defend Blagoyevich, however, no, the state did not have to spend any money taking the signs down. They had no legal obligation to removed the signs, they could have left the signs in place. The state (or more accurately Blagoyevich's successor) chose to spend the money to take the signs down.

  12. Ann_In_Illinois:

    Good point! They could have left them up. I'm just glad that Quinn didn't make them put up his name instead, to be later taken down by Rauner. And I'm kind of surprised that Secretary of State Jesse White's name isn't up there - his name and picture seem to be all over all kinds of things.

  13. Bloke in North Dorset:

    As a tourist, and its nearly 10 years since my last visit, you don't see that side of life. Sounds like you need a to hang a few local politicians and bureaucrats pour encourager les autres.

  14. irandom419:

    Cross out "Loudon County Tax Assessor" and deposit in personal account.

  15. Noumenon72:

    This would make sense if his name was *on* checks that were coming *to you*, but who wants their name associated with a big tax bill?

  16. ColoComment:

    Jesse White has been ILSOS forEVER. And OBTW, the complexities of IL's foreign corporation filing obligations are positively the worst in the nation.

    Hmmm. Could that really be mere coincidence? :-)

  17. xtmar:

    I think the difficulty there is that they would still have to mark the property tax as paid, because if they didn't and then tried to collect on it, the person could get a copy of the check from their bank and see where the money went.

  18. Ann_In_Illinois:

    I certainly don't want to defend that type of approach, but I think we should look at how small, poor suburbs are supposed to support themselves. Ferguson can't be raising much from property taxes, income taxes or sales taxes.

    I grew up in Missouri, on the other side of the State closer to Kansas City. KC incorporated miles of farmland around its edge, and my parents told me when I was growing up that this was to avoid getting locked in like St. Louis, where more prosperous people moved to separately-incorporated suburbs so that they didn't have to contribute to the city tax base (i.e. they could have separate school systems, funded and managed locally).

    From what I've heard, Ferguson used to be more prosperous, but then things took a bad turn. As a suburb goes downhill, their revenue sources will be going down just
    as their need to spend on services, especially police, goes up. Where
    does the money come from at the local level? Sadly, we've seen how Ferguson "filled the gap". It's ugly, and we should fix it, but focusing on racism may not get to the root of the problem.

  19. Matthew Slyfield:

    "but I think we should look at how small, poor suburbs are supposed to support themselves."

    1. These aren't suburbs these are full urban populations.
    2. The can't support themselves, properly. Not by any means.
    3. The smallest of these tiny urban slum cities in St Louis county is only 12.5 acres (Yes damn it acres).

    "we should fix it, but focusing on racism may not get to the root of the problem."

    I agree, focusing on racism can't fix this problem. While racism created these tiny cities (for the most part they were created when the population was white and middle to upper class to use local zoning control to keep blacks out) but they are now majority black and run by blacks.

    In my opinion, the only solution is for the state to step in and force
    either disincorporation or mergers to gain economies of scale to reduce
    the overall cost of local government.

  20. MB:

    For tax payments specifically, I was under the impression that it has to do with the personal liability the collector has. eg., in Florida[1]:

    "Any check received by the office of the collector which is returned by the bank...shall be the personal liability of the tax collector unless the collector, after due diligence to collect the returned check, forwards the returned check for prosecution to the state attorney..."

    Making it out to the *current* "Loudon County Tax Assessor" could cause some issues if the current is not the one you owed the taxes to. Mostly a historical artifact these days I'd think, but not pure election shenanigans.


  21. MB:

    Another thought - a change of mindset would possibly have you appreciating this small-time "corruption". After all, even if it costs $100k to change over to a new assessor every 4 years, that's only 1/400% of the $1bn/year collected[1].

    If you look at the history of tax collectors (and, I'm sure sheriffs - who also tend to do the name-emblazoning thing around here), you'll see that our "modern" tax collector is just an evolved European king or Roman emperor's "appointed" tax collector. It was pretty common to extort and skim quite a bit in those days - of course, the ruler didn't care because he got his share.[2]

    Our democracy "simply" solved the easy problem - make the collectors elected officials and more fearful of the citizens than the ruler. Changing human motivations is outside the scope.

    A little bit of inefficiency, waste and corruption is the price we pay for society; the current setup certainly seems largely preferable to the prior so I'll count it as a win.


  22. xtmar:

    1. Merge them. Autonomy and local control are good, but economy of scale is also a thing, and you need a certain size to be a viable full service municipality.
    2. Don't be a full service municipality. Start contacting some services either from neighboring towns or from the county. There are places in Maine and Utah and elsewhere that the town paid for some services, like roads, pays the state police for policing, and send the kids to regional schools.
    3. Move away from property taxes. This is obviously hard to do in isolation, but I think while property taxes have some theoretical economic advantages, they have lots of practical disadvantages. Perhaps it would be better to switch to local income or sales taxes, or else have the state or federal government devolve a fixed amount per resident to the local level, while leaving revenue collection to state or federal authorities.

  23. MB:

    Another way of looking at it is retail prices are 3-4% higher specifically because there's a credit card surcharge. At least the government gives you a discount for paying cash (retail is largely prohibited from doing so because of credit card agreements, nor would they really want to anyway - a lot of gov't offices won't accept VISA because of their onerous policies, though I think some agencies get a legislative waiver).

  24. Matthew Slyfield:


    Moving away from property taxes isn't practical for the small St. Louis county slum municipalities. They don't rely on property taxes now. If I recall correctly from articles I read on it, Ferguson gets 60% of it's total revenue from fines and court costs, in contravention of state law mandating a 30% cap. And this is common with it's neighbors as well.

    Besides, what would they move to? Local income tax? Their residents are too poor. Sales taxes? Too poor.

  25. Eric Hammer:

    When I lived in PA the local tax collector had just gotten sent to jail for stealing a few million dollars. Apparently she had been doing exactly what someone would expect: depositing everything in her personal account and only giving a little to the town. Whoops. I can't remember how she got caught (trial happened literally a month before we moved in so we just heard the tail end) but it was along the lines of "Township officials noticed they didn't have 2 million dollars they should have had."

  26. Mondak:

    I'm in San Diego county and this always irked me for the very same reasons.