By David Shapiro

Saturday, January 10, 1998

State took five months to cash my checks

WHEN William Donald Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore, he would spend weekends cruising around town in the back seat of his city limo.

The result would be dreaded Monday morning memos to his department heads that said things like: "I saw an abandoned car yesterday. It had better be gone the next time I pass that street. Or else."

He purposely wouldn't say where he saw the offending car, leaving the department head with no option but to clear out every abandoned vehicle in the city to be sure of saving his or her job.

Unfair? Maybe. Cruel? For sure. But it certainly got the problem fixed.

Here's one in the same vein for Gov. Ben Cayetano and his budget director Earl Anzai.

My checking account recently went nuts on me. Its comfortable balance suddenly disappeared and I nearly bounced a check for the first time in my life.

The reason for my troubles? A state agency cashed two of my checks totaling more than $1,000 the day before Christmas. The thing about it was I had written and mailed one of the checks in July and the other in August.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I should have kept better track of my outstanding checks. But it was galling to read in the Star-Bulletin the same day I figured out what was messing up my checking account that Anzai was moaning about yet another $200 million budget shortfall and warning of more cuts in essential programs.

Hey guys, how do you expect us to take seriously your cries of financial crisis when state agencies don't bother to cash checks we send them for five months? How much of that $200 million shortfall might be lying around undeposited on somebody's desk?

I'm just trying to be a good citizen. I'm happy to pay what I owe.

When the state suddenly decided to bill me for fines my kids ran up on my library card years ago, I promptly sent a check without complaint. I just wondered why it had taken seven years to send me a bill.

I guess the library fines were incurred during the fat surplus years of the Waihee administration and the state couldn't be bothered with the small change. Now that times are lean, small change looks good. But isn't it fair to ask whether the budget would be this tight if the state had been more diligent about taking care of its money in better times?

In the case of the uncashed checks, I made the payments to reimburse the state for a service the agency had arranged for me. I insisted on paying even though somebody at the agency told me I could probably weasel out of it since most people who receive the service don't reimburse the state even if they have the means.

I thought it was ridiculous for the state, given its fiscal troubles, to have to pay for me when I could pay for myself. I didn't think it was unreasonable to expect the state to cash the checks I sent them. If the state didn't need my money, I certainly could have found another use for it.

I'm not going to name the agency. The service involved a personal matter that I don't care to reveal to the world.

But mainly I want this to have the Schaefer effect. It would serve little purpose for Anzai and Cayetano to scold just the one agency involved. I hope they'll make clear that heads will roll the next time they hear of a check anywhere in the government that sits undeposited for five months.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at
Volcanic Ash runs every Saturday in the Star-Bulletin.

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