Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Friday, May 21, 1999

April mail system
isn’t letter perfect

BEING just a tad on the paranoid side, it doesn't take much for me to launch into grand conspiracy theories on the least amount of evidence.

So, when a friend of mine received an invitation my wife and I mailed him that had been opened by the state Department of Taxation, stamped with the notation "Opened in Error" before being sent toward its intended destination four weeks later, well, you don't have to be a JFK assassination nut to think something's wrong.

How could a letter sent from Kaneohe to Hawaii Kai via the nearly impeccable U.S. Postal Service end up at the state Department of Taxation?

As usual, I assumed there was some dark conspiracy involved and, as usual, I was wrong. Why people automatically assume that a government that cannot adequately handle something as simple as mail delivery (the names of the recipients are ON the envelopes, for chrissakes) would be capable of successfully spying on millions of citizens, I don't know. I guess it's just fun to believe that we are sooooo special that some government agency has nothing better to do but open our party invitations.

About two weeks after the invitation incident, I happened to be talking to a friend over a beer when, out of the blue, he said something weird had happened to a letter he had sent to his son in Louisiana. The letter reached his son four weeks late. But the crazy thing was that it had been opened and stamped by some tax department in Honolulu!

THIS was just too much. It was time to put on my "Investigative Humorist" hat, which, is not a pretty sight.

I called Ray Kamikawa, state tax director, who knew immediately what had happened, because it happens every year around tax time: the U.S. Post Service, swamped with mail, accidentally sends non-tax mail to the tax office.

According to Marie Okamura, head of state tax services, which processes tax returns, this essentially is what happens: In April, thousands of people file their federal and state tax returns. This creates a vast river of mail that floods into post offices like the Mississippi emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, except less organized and with relatively few fish. The post office tries to send the mail out as fast as it comes in and, as a result, some of it actually gets to where it is supposed to go.

About 60,000 pieces (literally a ton) of mail a day pours into the state tax office, which is a sight only someone with an extreme envelope fetish could enjoy. Many of the envelopes are quickly directed into automatic opening machines (or else the state health insurance program would go bankrupt from claims for paper cuts.)

Eventually, someone determines that the wayward envelopes actually should be going somewhere else, like Lousiana, for instance. They reseal the envelope, stamp it with the official "Whoops!" stamp and quickly send it on. In government, "quickly" takes about four weeks.

So there you go. If you receive mail weeks late and opened by the state tax department, you should feel extremely lucky. God bless the state tax office. At least those guys have a system for forwarding misdirected mail.

You have to wonder what happens to all the mail the post office misdirects in April and May that DOESN'T end up at the tax office. Your Visa bill check could be sitting at the animal quarantine station right now. Now THAT's scary.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802

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