Ruth to the Rescue: Detroit tax trouble

Battle brews over Detroit income tax

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DETROIT - Many Metro Detroiters work and pay income taxes to the city of Detroit.

The city says it sends out about 100,000 letters each year to people it suspects have not paid their income taxes. One of those letters arrived in the mailbox of the consumer producer at Ruth to the Rescue. That producer, Tony Statz, decided to document the process of fighting that assessment. At one point, he was using a hidden camera as he went to visit City Hall.

"Well, I was really frustrated! And, the tone of the letter was very intimidating and it made you feel like you were guilty and that you would have to prove your innocence," Statz remembered as he talked about receiving the letter in the mail.

The catch: He didn't work in Detroit!

The main reason Statz was so frustrated is that he didn't work or live in Detroit at all during 2011, the tax year in question. In fact, he lived 1,300 miles away for more of 2011 in the city of Miami Beach. The veteran TV producer moved to Detroit on Jan. 6 and started working for Ruth to the Rescue on Jan. 9.

"It's ironic because I wanted to move to Detroit to be part of the city's rebirth, and then I get slammed with a tax bill for money I didn't earn in Detroit," Statz remarked.

So, why would the city of Detroit think he owed unpaid taxes?

"Although I didn't work here in 2011, I filed taxes here in 2012. So, they had that address on the return and that's why I was flagged by the city."

That was the explanation Statz received from city officials in the finance department and from the mayor's spokesman.

Next problem: Missing proof

As Statz scanned the letter from the city, he realized he did not have the specific records the city requested to prove his case. He went to City Hall looking for more information, hoping some of the documents he had on hand would suffice. With a hidden camera, he went to the finance office to see if he could prove his residency some other way.

"What about W2s that show I worked in Chicago and Miami? How could I be working in Detroit?" he asked one of the supervisors in the department.

She responded, "Some of the people with W2s say Chicago and they're living in Texas, but they're working here. We get that all the time. W2s don't mean nothing!"

The city would accept an out-of-state driver's license. However, Statz only had his current Michigan license which he received in 2012, and he had thrown away his previous license.

The city would also accept two of the following: a voter's registration card from another city, a copy of a lease, deed, or mortgage closing papers, or copies of utility bills from another residence outside of Detroit.

At City Hall, he argued, "I don't have utility bills from 2011 in 2013."

The city worker said in response: "Cause you throw them away? Your house is completely immaculate, because you throw everything away?"

While Statz holds onto his tax records for several years, he didn't think he'd need the other paperwork. That meant he would have to track down the kind of proof the city will accept to prove he didn't live in Detroit during 2011.

"I think it's very difficult to do from work because you have to make these calls between 9 and 5. And, so it was just really a lot of work to recreate the records and make sure that I didn't have to pay this money," Statz said.

After a flurry of phone calls (more than 2 hours on hold) and emails, Statz finally had his proof. He returned to City Hall and was told the issue was resolved.

"I think if you are moving to Detroit, you might want to hold onto the records from your previous address a little while longer than you would, in case you're flagged for this," he cautioned future Detroit residents.

Ruth to the Rescue asked City Hall for someone to talk about the appeals process, but was told no one was available.

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