When the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners accepted the resignation of deputy tax collector Bonny Davis in April, it marked the completion of a 13-year tenure that ended in controversy.
When the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners accepted the resignation of deputy tax collector Bonny Davis in April, it marked the completion of a 13-year tenure that ended in controversy - with some taxpayers alleging they’d been unfairly charged late fees when in fact they paid their bills on time.
A longtime township resident who was first elected as tax collector in 2008 and beloved by many, Davis had been experiencing personal issues that had affected her job performance in recent years - resulting in what one township commissioner, Michael Maxwell, described as “hundreds” of complaints.
“People were having liens put on their houses and collection agencies were coming after them,” Maxwell told the Local. “One individual wrote to us saying they had four years worth of checks that were never turned in.”
What remains unclear is what - if anything - commissioners can or will do for residents who may be out significant sums of money.
Board Commissioner Peter Wilson said that, technically, these problems are the tax collector’s responsibility, not the township’s. Under state law, the township tax collector is elected, not hired, and is financially liable for their own work product. She is not an employee of the township.
“Our approach has always been that it was the tax collector who was the one responsible for all these actions,” Wilson said. “Some of them she got right and some of them she got wrong, unfortunately.”
Unfortunately for residents, there does not appear to be a formal appeal process for residents who say they were unfairly assessed a late fee.
“I am not sure there is a formal appeal process,” the township’s current tax collector, Joelle Kleinman, said in an email to the Local. “I have no authority to reverse the penalty fees.”
Township commissioners don’t seem to have a solution either.
“Everyone I have talked to,” Maxwell said in an email, “I have advised them to get a lawyer.”
How many, and how much?
The Local has not been able to determine how many taxpayers have been affected. Both the county and township tax collection offices say they don’t have data on the number of individual late tax payments for each municipality. They also can’t say whether the total amount of money paid to Springfield Township in late fees spiked during the period in question, or whether that number adds up to a sum that seems unusual.
The township does keep track of the total dollar amount of late tax payments, but the data for 2021 won’t be available until the municipality’s annual budget is released, which will likely happen in September, Township Manager Michael Taylor said.
Davis, however, maintained that there was “no spike in late payments” during her last few years in office. She also said she reimbursed late fees to anyone who could prove that they’d paid on time.
“When I’m wrong, I tell you I’m wrong,” she said. “I take full accountability.”
Still, several commissioners told the Local that the municipality received hundreds of complaints from residents, most of whom referenced communication issues.
And some people who spoke to the Local claimed they were unfairly assessed late penalties or had costly problems getting tax certifications.
One, a manager at a title agency whose name the Local is withholding because she wasn’t authorized by her employer to speak on the record, said she’d wound up paying $1,103.17 out of her own pocket to cover a tax penalty for a client.
She said her client had purchased a house in Springfield Township in September of last year, and that she mailed payments to various agencies associated with the transaction while closing the sale. The title manager didn’t find out that the township check was not cashed until several months later when her client, a new homeowner, started getting delinquencies from the Montgomery County Tax Claim Bureau. All the other payments she made when closing the sale went smoothly.
The title agency manager said she called Davis, but got an automated voicemail telling her to send an email. After sending multiple emails without getting a response, she reached out to the county.
“[The] Montgomery County Tax Claim [Bureau] told me there’s nothing they could do, but that a lot of people were experiencing the same problem,” the title agency manager said, adding that they said her only options were to pay the fine or hire an attorney.
She couldn’t ask her client to cover that cost, she said, so she paid the penalty out of her own pocket.
“There was really no recourse for me,” she told the Local. “There could be if I got an attorney involved, but that cost would pale in comparison to just paying the fine.”
A local mortgage lender, who also requested that his identity be withheld on the advice of his company’s lawyers, said tax certifications necessary for the disbursement of his mortgages were taking more than two months to arrive from Springfield’s tax collection office. They typically take about one to two weeks, he said.
In some cases, the lender said, clients had to pay interest rate lock extension fees of up to $600 because it took so long to get tax certifications from the township.
“The only township that has this issue is Springfield Township,” the lender said. “And I do mortgages in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.”
He also told the Local that, like the board commissioners, many Springfield residents complained to him about getting unfairly hit with late fees.
“I would say that between September and January of this year, my phone was ringing 10 to 15 times a day [with Springfield residents] asking about what's going on with their taxes,” the lender said. “There was a gentleman in Oreland who got a bill from the tax collector saying that his taxes weren't paid, and I went over to his house and I said 'listen, they have to be paid because it's on your mortgage document. Here's your closing disclosure - it shows that it's paid. Call the township and tell them it's paid.'”
Even the county had difficulty when it was time to collect its share of the taxes in January. Davis owed the county its portion - $83,000 in liens and $112,000 in cash payments - and had not paid it.
“Bonny should have settled with the county in January, and we had not heard from her,” Montgomery County spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said in an email. Finally, in March, the county gave Davis “bond notice,” alerting her that its share of the taxes she collected was late and needed to be paid.
“Approximately a week after that, she provided the county with her liens, final payment and documentation which closed the issue,” Cofrancisco said. “So by the time she settled she was two months late.”
Davis’s case, Cofrancisco said, was an “outlier” among the county’s 62 tax collectors.
What many residents, title agents and other stakeholders did not know was that Davis was fighting breast cancer during this time, and that her ailing mother had died. She also had to care for her elderly father.
“My mother was very sick,” Davis told the Local. “She died Sept. 28. It was a very tough time.”
As for complaints about her lack of communication, Davis said she’d set up an auto-reply for emails with a list of answers to frequently asked questions. When she got a question that was answered in her auto-reply or on the tax bill she wouldn’t respond.
“Anybody who says I didn’t respond to them, there was a reason,” she said. “It was because they asked a question that was answered someplace else.”
Davis also said she may not have received checks due to postal delays, or theft, both of which are issues that have been documented extensively by the Local and other local news outlets.
“I didn’t lose hundreds of checks,” Davis said. “I didn’t get them.”
In a follow-up email, Davis said that because she deals with so much more mail than most regular businesses or individuals, “it only makes sense that it is in the realm of possibility that hundreds of checks were lost.”
She also complained about a lack of resources.
Due to lack of staffing, for instance, Davis said she frequently employed the help of her parents and children during the busy season.
Not only did she not have a staff, she said, but her physical office was insufficient. It didn’t get good cell reception and she wasn’t given an office phone, making it a less-than-ideal space to work and “not very secure.”
“Abington, Lower Merion and Cheltenham have this - you walk up to a window, not someone’s office,” she said, which created problems when dealing with angry taxpayers. Pay was also an issue.
“If I figured out my hourly rate,” she said, “it’s probably like $5.”
Davis said she wished she had stepped down in June of 2021. But that would have created a complicated situation of its own, she explained.
“I knew [stepping down] would be so hard because then I still had to finish collecting or turn it over to the new person, and then I’d be audited, and it would have been so difficult,” she said. “So I said OK I’ll hang in until the end of the year.”
Concern for Davis
Despite their frustration, many residents who knew what Davis was going through were understanding of her situation and didn’t want to make her life unpleasant.
Joe Randa, a resident who had complained of not being able to get in touch with Davis about late penalties he thought were unfair, said he “never had a problem” in prior years and expressed empathy for her situation.
“She had cancer, her mother was sick and dying,” he said. “I feel bad for her.”
State Rep. Napoleon Nelson spoke in support of the job Davis was able to do for the overwhelming majority of her tax-collecting career.
“Bonny was always one who, when I was learning to do the job, always went above and beyond what was expected,” he said. “Her work was great. She did a great job.”
But as the complaints piled up towards the end of her tenure, just about everybody involved, including Davis, felt it was best for her not to run for re-election. Davis said it was her decision not to run for re-election last year. She stayed on as deputy tax collector to aid with the transition to Kleinman, the new tax collector. But in March, the board of commissioners asked her to resign from that post in the wake of Davis being unable to settle with the county.
“The reason we asked her to resign is because she failed to reconcile the taxes for 2021 in a timely manner with the county, [school] district and township,” said Maxwell. “Everybody was pretty much at the breaking point of it.”
Jim Lee, another member of Springfield Township’s board of commissioners, said that there was a “consensus” among the board that it would be best for the township to find a new deputy tax collector.
“Bonny served Springfield well for many years,” he said, “and there was a consensus that it was best for all parties that someone new fill the deputy tax collector position going forward.”