To The Editor:
I remember his eyes to this day. After so many years, hearing so many stories, I knew this was no hard-luck story made up to avoid responsibility. Those were the eyes of a father who really had sat next to his son’s bed all through the month of December as he fought brain cancer. I explained again that there was no exception in state law for penalties on tax bills due to personal hardship. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t crack that door open. He looked at me and said, “But you’re not a robot. You’re a human. You have a heart.”
My mind immediately jumped to the verse I learned in church as a child, “The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He pleases.” I remember learning about how to appeal to authority. But I never learned that verse from the perspective of the king. I never realized I might be that king. And I never realized that sometimes the king is in a terrible position and his (or her) heart can’t just turn wherever it pleases. I was then reminded of another wise king who threatened to cut a baby in half simply to determine which person before him was telling the truth.
(As a collector of revenue) I hear every hard-luck story there is. I have been asked to waive penalties because a man’s son was shot in the head three days before the bill was due. I have learned that a taxpayer burned his own home down and committed suicide in the backyard rather than turn over his house that he had lost in the tax sale. Being a collector is no picnic. But the one thing I cling to every day is that I treat everyone the same. Tax collectors in the Bible got a bad rep because they were dishonest and unethical. The only way I redeem that perception is by being honest and being ethical. I have to look every taxpayer in the eye and promise them from my heart that they will be treated with the same fairness as every other person who appears before my counter.
If I waive penalties for the man standing before me, why wouldn’t I go down to the hospital and offer to waive the penalties of every parent sitting outside a child’s hospital room? And why stop there? Why don’t I find everyone I know who is hurting, or struggling, or broken, and offer to waive penalties to ease their pain? How do I look at any person for the rest of my life that has faced a struggle and refuse to waive penalties when I know I waived them for others? Where does that slippery slope end?
Someone asked me once how I slept through the night when I knew I had to sell people’s homes on the tax sale. My answer was that I focused on the senior citizens who got meals and rides because of the Senior Services Board. I visit the local sheltered workshop to see disabled adults learning skills and loving life. Every time I drive across a bridge I try to remember who paid for that bridge. A tax bill is a sacred promise from a government to its consensual constituents to take the small amount collected from each bill and return a greater good. The only thing that makes a tax bill more moral than breaking into a rich person’s house, stealing their wealth, and spreading it on the streets is the rule of law that governs that bill. Every bill has to follow the same transparent, regulated process, and not be subject to fraud or waste.
Why does Julie Schaumberg look every taxpayer in the eye and treat them with unwavering integrity, following the rule of law to the letter? Because these are the moral conundrums we all face. Being a collector is one of the hardest jobs in the world, especially for anyone who has both compassion and integrity. The thought that anyone would question Schaumberg’s unwavering integrity, and prefer favoritism toward one taxpayer over the rule of law applied to everyone else is absurd. In this community full of people she loves and knows personally, Julie Schaumberg is a warrior. She’s doing the right thing for the right reasons.
Elected Collector of Revenue for Clay County, Missouri
Attorney for Julie Schaumberg