Thursday, November 20, 2014

Adventures in bureaucracy: state level

I have occasionally noted that I am a member of the county historical society and volunteer at the museum the society operates. Back in 2013 I was elected treasurer of the organization. This means I get to deal with all the paperwork we receive from entities such as the United States Department of the Treasury (i.e., the IRS) and the State of Michigan.

Well, when I checked the mail yesterday the State's Treasury Department had dropped an annoying missive into the society's lap. The State of Michigan, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that all businesses (and that includes nonprofits) must register online with the division responsible for collecting Sales, Use, and Withholding taxes. This is fine with me. I think it's a great idea. Anything that in theory makes life simpler for everyone strikes me as good. If reporting can be reduced down to filling out an online form once a year and hitting the send key, it's a win.

So I cheerfully typed in the URL required to reach the registration site. That's when I discovered the State (or the moronic contractor they hired) had done something bizarre. To register your business you have to enter identifying information as an individual. You begin by creating a user ID that will consist of your last name, first initial, and 4 numerical digits of your choosing. Okay. We're the Baraga County Historical Society. Does that mean our name is SocietyB1234? And for the part that asks for first name, middle initial, and last name, are we Baraga C Society? Apparently not. The system won't take it. I spent a rather frustrating twenty minutes or so trying to come up with a work-around for filling in a form designed for humans only. A good chunk of that time was spent trying to find a way to contact the State to ask for help.

Well, good luck with that one, too, because there is no Contact or Help provided other than a link to an 800 number that on screen claims to have operators standing by 24/7 but instead lands you at the usual voice mail tree that does the oh-so-predictable infinite looping. Our tax dollars at work. I did find a Contact form for the Governor's office so filled that form out asking how a corporation would register as opposed to an individual business owner. After all, corporations may be people now but they still don't have people-type names.

I realized as I was doing this that I could have come up with a simple solution: I could have either filled the form out using my own name or I could have made something up. I resisted for several reasons. First, I have no desire to have my name permanently linked to the society or the museum. There's already too much mail arriving addressed to me or one of the other officers c/o the museum when it should be addressed to the organization itself instead of to a representative. The museum in theory is going to be around for many decades; the other members and I are just passing through. Second, if I created an alias for the museum, sooner or later some bell in the labyrinth of the state bureaucracy would ring, some desk monkey would rouse himself from his nap, mutter "This isn't right," and Explanations would be Demanded.

The thing that baffles me about the whole experience. . . well, it doesn't really baffle me because I know that the typical contractor tends to be both lazy and not particularly creative. . . is why didn't they design a fill-in form that did the obvious? You know, ask for the business name, then the name of a contact person or officer, and go from there? It's so bizarre. It's like whoever designed the form assumed every business in the state is a sole proprietorship. Very, very strange.

As for why we have to worry about this type of stuff when we're so small and make less money annually than some teenage babysitters rake in, as long as we're a recognized nonprofit corporation we do have to comply with rules for annual reporting. We may not have any paid employees at the moment and the receipts from the gift shop fall well below the threshold for nonprofits for paying sales taxes, but we still have to do the same paperwork as any other business. It's not that big a deal to do when we're putting zeroes in most of the spaces on the forms. And who knows? One of these days a tour bus could pull into the parking lot and disgorge a horde of shopaholic tourists who empty the gift shop to the point where the State gets lucky. I can dream.


  1. Regina, Saskatchewan has expanded enough they have added a new Postal Code S4W in the past year. Neither The Economist nor Elance have their databases up to date so they would not allow me to enter my credit card. contacted both. Whoever is responsible for customer service apparently had no clue what I was talking about and continue to give me the runaround, claiming it is everyone's fault but their own. So I have to use PayPal which charges much higher FX to convert CAD to USD


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