SIKESTON -- Among the most famous quotes by Benjamin Franklin is the one assuring "In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." Most people believe, however, that upon the former obligation to the latter ends.
Apparently that isn't the case.
"In the Wednesday paper of this week the city of Sikeston printed a delinquent personal property list," said Gary DeWitt. "My mother Geneva DeWitt, who passed away March 15, 2006, was listed so I called the city and they said it was for her personal property."
"Missouri law states that for anybody who owes taxes as of Jan. 1, a tax bill is generated and therefore that tax bill is due," said Mark Hensley, Scott County collector of revenue. "You have law and you have personal feelings, and you have to go by law."
By current state statutes, even if the person is deceased "it is still considered delinquent if not paid," Hensley said. "This may be an issue that need be taken up by Missouri state legislators."
DeWitt and his brothers agree.
"We need to change the way we do things for the future," Larry DeWitt said.
"I realize the city of Sikeston has a lot going on," Gary DeWitt said. But he thinks the city should try to find some way to remove the names of the deceased, "see if we could avoid having this embarrassment."
As the purpose of publishing the names of those with delinquent taxes is to motivate them to pay up, including the deceased doesn't seem to make any sense.
"What are they accomplishing?" Gary DeWitt said. Collectors need to find a way to "contact the family because a deceased person can't answer for their problems -- a deceased person can't pay a bill."
Larry DeWitt said he and his brothers are looking for "just a little common courtesy," not only for themselves but for all families who have lost a loved one. "We're still grieving over our mother," he said.
"I guess what upset me most was someone calling and and saying, 'Your mom is in the paper under delinquent taxes,'" Gary DeWitt said. "It was a little disturbing to us to have someone call and tell us our mother who has been dead for 18 months has her name in the paper."
While the published list was for city, not county, taxes, "I am sympathetic with that," Hensley said. "If there is no estate to pay these, they just stay out there in limbo and show up as a delinquency on that person."
"We have been printing the delinquent personal property list in the paper for about six years," City Collector Vicky Jordan said.
An article is run in the paper in advance advising residents the list will be published, she said.
"The original tax bills are mailed out in November and a second notice is mailed in early April that taxes are still outstanding," Jordan said. "The only way a personal property tax bill can be added or removed is through the Scott and/or New Madrid County assessor's office."
Jordan apologized for any names of deceased loved ones that were included on the list, but maintained "the only way to get someone off the tax rolls is through the Scott and or New Madrid County assessor's office."
"I just asked why someone couldn't have called before they printed her name," Gary DeWitt said. "I was just a little disturbed to see someone who had passed away listed with those with delinquent taxes. It's not just my mother -- I happened to know a guy who has been dead probably five years and he's listed: Alton Crowley. If a person has been dead for five years I don't think their name should be listed under delinquent taxes."
"Don't worry about being technically right; be morally right," Larry DeWitt said. "Our culture is to respect the dead -- don't you pull over for a funeral?"
Gary DeWitt said he thinks a significant number of people on the city's delinquent personal property tax list may be deceased and shouldn't be listed.
"I think someone needs to have better knowledge of what they're doing," he said. "I think it's pretty tacky when you are printing a list and people are deceased."
While the tax bills originate at the county level, "I do things a little different than the city," Hensley said: tax bills of the deceased are written off at his office after three years on the tax rolls. "Missouri statutes allow this," he said.
Hensley noted, however, that because people need a personal property tax receipt from the county to get their car licensed -- while they don't need a receipt from the city -- he doesn't have to be as aggressive as the city in pursuing delinquent personal property taxes.
If a person wants to register their vehicle, they'll have to come in eventually and pay their county personal property taxes, he said.
While other city residents may face the same situation in the future, the matter appears to be over for the DeWitt family.
"I went and paid it," Gary DeWitt said. "I went and paid it because I don't want her name back in the paper again."