In the 1990s, Mike Lano snapped pro photos of pro wrestlers duking it out. Now, he’s the one going to the mat -- with the City of San Francisco over a tax bill.
"It’s the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to me, and I’ve been around pro wrestling and that’s about as ridiculous as it gets," he said.
Dr. Lano’s day job in the 90s was dentistry, with a small practice near Sutter and Stockton. Each year, the city billed him a business equipment tax called "unsecured property tax." In 2021, Lano got a collection notice for his 1993 tax bill.
"After 28 years, they’re claiming I was late by X number of days," he said. "I’m not paying a dime because I don’t owe it."
Get a weekly recap of the latest San Francisco Bay Area housing news. Sign up for NBC Bay Area’s Housing Deconstructed newsletter.
SURPRISE LETTER ARRIVES
The bill shows the city charged him a $36 penalty in 1993.
Then, through the Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden years, that $36 has mushroomed with interest and fees to more than $450. Here’s the hitch: Lano insists he paid his bill on time, in person, in 1993 (and 1994 and 1995).
He says he’s heard zilch from the city for 28 years.
"No emails, no calls," he said. "Nothing."
40K+ OLD DEBTS ON THE BOOKS
The city told us it has 47,753 unpaid tax accounts, totaling $146 million due. The oldest accounts are from 1993, including Lano's. So, why’s the city contacting him now, 28 years later, after he’d retired and moved to Southern California?
The city told us his account was part of, “some concerted effort to try and clean up / resolve older delinquencies.”
Lano asked NBC Bay Area Responds for help.
“When you started investigating, Chris, someone said they had filed a lien without my knowledge," he said.
LIENS, BUT WHO KNEW?
San Francisco court records show the city did file a lien in 1993; re-filed in 2003 and 2013. The city says it sends people notices. But Lano says he received no written notices in roughly 28 years.
"Zero," he said.
Lano listed his business address and phone number in the Yellow Pages in the 1990s. We know because we checked old phone books at the library.
We asked the San Francisco treasurer for copies of notices it sent Lano. The city sent us a statement saying, "we have millions of debts we are collecting over decades. So it’s not feasible / practical to maintain copies of everything sent."
The city went on to say, "we would certainly review any proof that he paid this bill timely (by 8/31/1993)."
That would be ideal. But Lano says his cancelled check is long gone, and the bank can’t help. He shredded old files years ago, never imagining in 2022 he’d need 1993 papers.
"This feels like a total rip off," Lano said.
POSSIBLE SOLUTION: JUST WAIT IT OUT
It’s an impasse.
Lano told us he was weighing his legal options. Or, he could just wait it out. After we started asking questions, the city told us there’s a 30-year statute of limitations on its debts.
It can discharge Lano's disputed 1993 debt next year.
RECORD KEEPING LESSONS
"San Francisco has all sorts of weird rules," said CPA Larry Pon.
We ran Lano’s case by Pon for a recordkeeping lesson. First, we agreed you should keep your bank records digitally, because your bank might not.
"The banks don’t guarantee they’ll have copies of all your records," Pon said.
And second, pay special attention to any proof you paid your taxes: local, state, federal -- all of the above.
"It’s a good idea to keep copies of those statements, or copies of those cancelled checks to prove that you made payments," Pon said.
So, how long should you keep a tax record? The state says four years. The IRS says three to seven years. Lano goes farther.
"Retain it for life," Lano said. "Have it in the cloud… have lots of backup recordkeeping. Not one source, but many."
With paper files, that was a pain. But now, it’s easier with digital files and cheap storage.
Two more pieces of advice: when you pay a tax bill, check back a month or two later. Make sure your payment actually posted. Also, search court records every once in a while -- for yourself. Look for surprises, like liens. See something? Say something.