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January 27, 1998

Storm Aftermath

Dear Neighbors:

I'm wearing a couple of different hats these days. As you can tell, I've been filing city-wide stories for Washington City Paper. And I've just been engaged by Digital Ink, the Washington Post's on-line newspaper, to file a weekly column on Northwest Washington. Now, if the Washington Times let's me cover sports, I'll complete the hat trick.

Now that I'm a part-time reporter (versus a full-time couch potato), I ask you for help on leads for community stories. Also, please invite me to community meetings. ( I can't show up if no one tells me.) Also, I would really like to sign up as many ANC members to this discussion group as possible. They can post their meetings and keep us informed of the goings-on in their neighborhoods. Please suggest this possibility to ANC members.

Finally, I really do need your help in finding new members for this email newsletter. Please pass it on to your email buddies and encourage them to subscribe. Please, please, please!!

At the end of this message is a story I wrote that appeared in Washington City Paper last week. But first your comments. Keep those cards and letters coming. Jeffrey Itell

We have scheduled a Ward 3 Town Meeting for Wednesday, February 7, from 7 to 9 p.m., at St. Columba's Episcopal Church, 4201 Albemarle, one block west of the Tenleytown Metro. The focus will be on service delivery and should give neighbors a chance to offer ideas for handling the next snowfall. My hope is that a conversation with constituents will better prepare me to make constructive proposals for revamping the District's snow plan, which doesn't answer the question about resources to maintain equipment but might help deploy limited resources more sensibly. Also: I've accepted an invitation to the Cleveland Park Citizens' Association on Saturday, February 3, 10 a.m., at the Cleveland Park library -- also, presumably, to focus on basic services.

Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson

Is anyone else interested in the unsolved vandalism of a city tree chopped down in the middle of the night some years ago in front of Riggs Bank, and never replaced? The event coincided with the opening of the Diner at Morrison & Conn.; the tree partly obstructed view of diner for northbound traffic.

E. James Lieberman, M.D.

Do you know when Hechingers plans to move across the street to the old Sears? What will take its place? Borders Books & Music? Total Beverage? dc.story?

Rick Rosenthal

When asked what state I live in I reply " A State of Chaos". Indeed, Desperation City is in a state of total chaos. With regard to raising revenue by a "Commuter Tax", there is no real justification for charging people a tax just because they work in the District. A use fee for services could probably be justified for Police, Fire Protection, and Roads. I suppose they could install toll booths at all the entrances to the city. New York does this quite well. They charge you a princely sum to come into the city and let you leave at no cost. Of course this might mean digging a huge moat around the District to make it an Island like New York, Brooklyn and Long Island where you must use either a bridge or tunnel to get into the city by surface transport.

I propose a simpler solution. Let us offer the nearby residents of D.C. and those that drive into the city on a regular basis, the opportunity to vote for the Mayor of D.C. every four years. Vouchers could be sold for the sum of $100 per year to any persons who want the privilege of voting for the District's mayor once every four years. The sympathy vote for the plight of D.C. residents could bring in millions each year and also result in the election of a mayor who meets standards that most reasonable and decent people would require for that job. Let's see - 50,000 cars at $100 per year is 5 Million per year. We could even use the money for some decent snow plows. That would pay for at least 70 good plows each year. In three to four years we'd have a fleet that could clear out the whole city in a couple of days.

Ed Barron

The DC Council calendar of the week that arrived in today's mail shows that David Clarke has introduced Bill 11-543, the "DC Snow Removal Act of 1996", which would "authorize the temporary employment of persons or organizatiuoins for the purposes of snow and ice removal." I haven't seen the bill, but that sounds like a good idea -- especially if it means DC can shovel the walks of property owners who don't shovel their own sidewalks and then bill them for it. Perhaps you should get a copy of the bill and tell your readers what it says, so we can all send our Councilmembers our comments.

Art Spitzer

The bill gives the mayor authority to hire the young and the homeless to shovel out public spaces. It's a costly way to remove snow. The city ought to spend the money it would use on such a program to keep their truck fleet operating. I submitted a story to City Paper on the subject. Look for it next week.

Jeffrey Itell


When the solar king promised to plow residential streets by the next day, and not even the shadow of a snowplow was seen, I was reminded of his promise to fix potholes within 48 hours. All you had to do was to telephone and leave a message. Of course, if you could finally get through and leave your message, nothing was done.. Barry's allegiance is to his retirement program (The Arena) and to city government employees, two or three times more numerous than in cities such as New York and Chicago, even after making allowance for fulfilling state functions. City government is a pyramid with a huge bulge at the upper levels. It is a jobs program. There is no motivation to deliver services to tax payers or to tax consumers. Because of the city government, what business would ever willingly locate in this town? Even in Maryland and Virginia, proximity to the district is a detriment, not an asset.

Yet through judicious use of the R-word, this man will get reelected again and again. The council of dwarfs is not much better. Unless we change the structure of district government, there is no hope. Retrocession to Maryland is part of the answer. At least the city would have to contend with state requirements and would receive state oversight and assistance. If we had been retroceded to Maryland, during the recent snow storm our major thoroughfares would have been plowed by state and county governments, leaving the city government to do what they can do so well - plow residential streets. .

Richard Levine RL44W@NIH.GOV

My friend Alan says that Peking Gourmet moved to Tysons Corner and now calls itself House of China. Apparently their landlord wanted to double their rent from $4,000. to $8,000. He hopes maybe we'll get another upscale coffee shop there instead.

Marilyn Dickey

More on recycling: I heard from our Ward 3 Council member, Kathy Patterson, who says that the current contractor still is supposed to be picking up stuff on schedule and that residents can alert her to lapses at 724-8062. As various correspondents have reported, the pickups remain erratic. Patterson says she is having an open meeting from 7-9 p.m. Wed., Feb. 7, at St. Columba's church to discuss city services--snow removal, trash, etc., so there's one forum for people to protest.

Ted Gest 73652,

As a community service, I'd like to suggest all reader's check the expiration date on their D.C. driver's license. (I can't be the only one uninformed that no reminder would come in the mail.) Having just retaken the written test, been given a LEARNER'S PERMIT until the much delayed road test, I thought I'd pass on the above advice. If the expiration date is less than 6 months ago, it is a simpler process. Good luck! E. Small [BTW: I wrote about this in the Northwest Side Story when I noticed my license was going to expire. Check your expiration dates, I told everyone. A few months later, I was travelling in Kansas City and couldn't rent a car because my license had expired. Go figure! Jeffrey}

This article ran last week in Washington City Paper, with a nice graphic of me with my hands around a deadbeat's neck.

Dunning for Dollars

Some people are born to professions, and others have professions thrust upon them. Though I was under the illusion that I merely published the Northwest Side Story-a local monthly paper-the failure of my clients to pay their debts brought me to the realization that I was actually the First National Bank of Itell. But dunning for dollars was not my career aspiration.

Collecting from store owners caused me more than once to reach for the Tagamet. Feigning ignorance of the U.S. Postal Service, some store owners -often immigrants-would pay me only if I dropped by for their store-even though many owners never made appointments, kept appointments, or told their staffs where they were. When I arrived, I often found out that they were spending a two-month vacation in their mother country. One client owed me $300 plus interest. I made five trips to collect. Once he forgot his checkbook. Twice his checks bounced. Another time he promised me payment in full and, arriving 20 minutes later, offered me only $100. "Come back next Monday and we will see what we can do." Did he expect me to bring a bedroll? Although I was too fatigued to collect finance and bounced-check charges from him, I was happy to collect the money. I was not so fortunate with other clients.

Determined clients, however, could delay and, in some cases, avoid paying their advertising debts, employing many ruses. Clients often prattled about forthcoming checks out of whose bounty they would pay me. Other clients were even less forthcoming: "I submitted the bill for payment." Or "We don't pay bills until the end of the month, year, millennium, etc." And they also employed the very popular stall tactic, "I seem to have lost the invoice. Could you fax over a copy?" Clients who seemed constitutionally incapable of sticking a check in the mail (or returning a telephone call) began consuming a large amount of my time-close to 50 percent. My goal when calling these clients was to convince them that my invoice was the most important one they had to pay-a tough sell to a restaurant owner whose food supplier is threatening to cut him off for nonpayment. Clients adopted creative tactics at this point. Some viewed the call as a time to renegotiate the bill-even though the invoice is backed by a signed contract.

One real estate agent tried to renegotiate his terms whenever I called to collect money. Merely calling him, in his view, was an affront to his dignity. Our protracted, almost daily conversations would usually end in an oral agreement. But like Groundhog Day, the next day was as if the previous day never occurred. When he failed to make payment when promised, he would deny that he had ever agreed to the terms. So I began documenting our agreements, which upset him. "Am I not a man of dignity?" No, you are someone who bought an ad who had no money to pay for it. I eventually threw him out of the paper, charged him a cancellation fee, refused to accept his calls, and barred him from advertising in the paper. The last I heard from him, I was absolutely, positively going to receive my $300 by Thanksgiving. I should have asked him to specify which Thanksgiving.

Other clients would get hung up over interest charges. "Our company policy is that we do not pay the finance charges." Fine, but do you also have a company policy to pay bills within 30 days? Do you also have a company policy that prohibits the company president from signing contracts where he agrees to pay interest charges?

One client, who still owes over $800, is an amiable sort. We had done favors for each other and often talked about matters beyond the business realm. After a tough summer involving expensive legal battles, he took his family on a two-week scuba diving vacation, somewhere in the Pacific. He fell in love with underwater photography and started telling me about all the expensive equipment he planned to buy. As I slipped into the conversation my request for payment, his tone turned icy as he claimed he was broke and could not afford to pay me. Well, at least now I know why he was broke. Underwater photography will clean you out every time.

When dunning for dollars, sometimes a little honesty is refreshing, even when the client is screwing you. One client, who owes over $1,000, will not pay me because (he claims) that no one responded to his ad. As if advertising comes with a money-back guarantee. He can afford to pay. I see his ad in other D.C. publications. He just does not want to pay me. And the sad truth is that despite signing a contract, he does not have to. The law is not on my side.

District law and the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act mostly benefit the debtor. As a corporation, I need an attorney to sue in District courts, even in Small Claims Court. At $100 to $200 per hour, attorneys will chew up what you are owed by lunch. Even if you get a favorable judgment, a savvy small businessperson can hide assets like a con artist hiding cards on a three-card monte table. Try going after corporate assets and you find that the corporation is unencumbered by cash, even as the president drives a Mercedes. Try going after the president personally and you will find yourself back in court-k-ching, k-ching-paying more attorneys' fees. All this work for a $500 debt? It's better to spend your time selling new ads to new clients.

Collection agencies really cannot provide help either. Nationally, only 18.9 percent of delinquent debts sent to collection agencies are collected, according to Mike Sutherland, president of American Collections Enterprise, Inc. The percentage for advertising debts is probably even lower, he speculated.

When I could not cajole or force the deadbeats into paying, I immediately thought of revenge. How about smearing their reputations? Who would want to engage a home contractor who skips out on bills? Unfortunately, if I used this approach, I would find myself at the wrong end of a lawsuit. Privacy laws govern the publication of a person's creditworthiness. Though you may frequently see bounced checks posted in stores, they survive only for the lack of adequate enforcement.

It's also virtually impossible to sully a deadbeat's personal credit rating. Recently, the big three credit rating bureaus-TRW, Equifax, and Transunion-decided not to process certain types of credit complaints-among them newspaper advertising. Their rationale, according to Sutherland, was that the companies did not have the personnel to deal with the volume of advertising complaints they received.

Having run out of options, I still call clients who owe me money, more out of habit than because of any expectation that they will pay me. Of the $3,000 still owed me, I expect to see about $1,000 (as long as I keep up my efforts). The rest I will write off when my stubborn streak abates.

Now let's see how fast it takes Washington City Paper to pay me for this article.

Jeffrey Itell

Jeffrey Itell Publisher: dc.story Tel: 202.244.4163 P.O. Box 11260 Fax: 202.362.1501 Washington, D.C. 20008-0460 "For People Who Live Inside the Beltway... But Outside the Loop."

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