Sunday, July 27, 2014

Friendly neighborhood web site taking a toxic turn

An online website open to residents of an urban neighborhood in the northeast U.S. was designed as a way for neighbors to keep one another informed about everything from yard sales and local performances to police ticketing illegally parked cars and potential safety issues. It's not unique in its mission. Many online sites -- either freestanding or through other social media websites -- have proliferated over the past several years.

As neighbors lives have gotten busier, the sites offer a way to keep one another informed -- even if some users don't recognize the names of many of their neighbors doing the informing.

On the site in question, while hundreds of neighbors have signed up, only a handful are regular users. Others chime in occasionally to request the name of a good plumber or advertise some gently used furniture. It's the dozen or so regular posters who have command of the site.

Lately, the tone of the site has been decidedly alarmist, with posts about roving bands of young kids on bikes or complaints that children "from other neighborhoods" using the public basketball courts leave them littered with empty water and sports drink bottles. There have been posts raising concerns about whether these "outsiders" are frequenting the neighborhood parks to buy and sell drugs.

Others complain that police don't respond to their concerns quickly enough. Still others complain when police ticket cars parked partially on sidewalks because someone called to complain, even though such parking has been acceptable for years as a way of letting emergency vehicles pass through narrow streets when necessary.

Occasionally, some complaints strike some users as inappropriate, especially those veering into concern about "others" coming into the neighborhood to use the public parks and courts. When a site member responds to take such a poster to task, this triggers an angry back-and-forth exchange among the regulars.

What, then, are the majority of users who stay connected to the site for legitimate news and safety tips to do? Among themselves, many of these non-posting members gripe about the tone some posts, but is it their responsibility to challenge any post that seems tinged with racism or constitutes verbal bullying? After all, whenever someone does post a call for moderation, the discussion often gets even more heated.

It's good for neighbors to try to keep one another informed. However, when this results in more alarmist or offensive posts than useful ones, the value of the site is lessened.

The right thing for the non-posting users to do is decide whether the information they get from the site outweighs their frustration over the tone of some posts. If they find too many postings objectionable, they should quit the site and find alternative ways to get the information they need. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pay whatever taxes you owe - regardless of what the neighbors think

A reader tells his neighbor that he plans to spend the next couple of weekends painting various rooms in the summer house he owns with his wife.

"You rent out an apartment in your primary house, don't you?" the neighbor asks.

The reader tells him that indeed he does.

"Why don't you write off the expenses of painting the rooms in your summer house as an expense incurred for that rental property?" the neighbor asks.

The reader responds by telling his neighbor that he's not doing any work on the rental property. He's sprucing up only the summer place, so the expenses are not legally deductible.

"I do it all the time," the neighbor says, telling the reader that he owns a house with several apartments that he rents out. Whenever he does work on his primary residence, he tells the reader, he lists the expenses as having been incurred on the rental property -- even though they weren't.

"No one has ever called me on it," the neighbor says. "Why shouldn't I take the deduction? You should, too," he tells the reader.

The reader thinks for a moment how to respond, then simply says he wouldn't feel comfortable taking a deduction for expenses on his rental property that he didn't really incur since this would be illegal.

The neighbor doesn't see the big deal, telling the reader that he already pays enough in taxes. Why shouldn't he take a deduction or two even if he fudges on where the expenses were incurred?

"Because it's illegal," the reader repeats.

"So report me," the neighbor says curtly.

The reader has already indicated he intends to do the right thing by not claiming a deduction for work that's not tax deductible. But he wonders if he has any responsibility to report his neighbor's illegal deductions to tax authorities.

Clearly, the neighbor is in the wrong. How much he already pays in taxes has nothing to do with whether or not he should pay taxes for which he's legally liable. Encouraging the reader to follow suit is bad advice, but not as bad as flaunting his own legal obligations.

"I'm not going to report you," the reader tells his neighbor.

"Go ahead and do it," his neighbor responds. "Maybe you'll get a finder's fee for turning me in."

The reader is still inclined not to report his neighbor, but since the neighbor continues to urge him to do so, he wonders if the right thing would be to turn in the scofflaw. After all, he -- and presumably many others in similar situations -- pay the taxes they owe without creating fake expenses to offset them.

"Why should this guy get away with not paying what he owes when the rest of us have to?" he asks.

The right thing is for the reader to trust his instincts not to report his neighbor based on a passing conversation. Who knows if the neighbor's claim is simply bluster? Without evidence to the contrary, the reader has no proof that his neighbor has done anything wrong.

The reader should pay the taxes he owes and continue to tell his neighbor that he has no intention of cheating on his taxes if the subject should arise again. 

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Did old friend deserve a drubbing for his shady business practices?

How honest should you be with old friends when you find their business dealings objectionable?

Recently, a reader was contacted by a high school classmate letting him know that he'd be visiting the reader's hometown, had some free time, and wondered if they could get together. It had been more than 20 years since the two had seen one another. Aside from a very occasional email over two decades, the two not stayed in touch.

The reader admits that he made no special effort to stay in touch with his old friend, since previous contacts had usually involved requests for favors that proved time consuming. He had never considered the former classmate someone he'd ask for anything in return. In spite of this, he told his classmate when he'd be available and that if the time worked out for both of them, he'd be glad to get together and catch up. They set a time to meet for lunch.

While he was suspicious that the classmate might want a favor, it turned out that the meeting simply involved a pleasant conversation about mutual friends, their families, their careers, and filling in the gaps in their lives since they'd last seen one another. No favors were asked or seemed forthcoming.

However, when the old classmate filled the reader in on the work he'd been doing, the meeting took a dark turn. The reader wondered how far he should go in expressing his concern about the nature of the classmate's work.

The classmate was involved with a company that sold used cars to people who had a hard time getting financing. While the classmate presented this as a wonderful opportunity to help those in need, it became increasingly clear that the firm might actually be preying on those with poor credit.

The reader asked his classmate what kind of interest rates his outfit charged for the used car loans. "Twenty-one percent," his friend responded. Granted, the borrowers most likely could not get readily available financing otherwise, but given that a typical car loan ranges from 3 percent to 6 percent, the rate seemed excessive. It would be akin to putting a car purchase on a high-interest credit card.

While nothing seemed illegal about the company's operations, the reader wondered how strong an objection he should raise to the high interest rates. After all, he didn't have much contact with the classmate and suspected he was going to do what he was going to do.

The right thing was to do what the reader did. He asked about the interest rate, mentioned that he thought the operation seemed founded on making a hefty profit on the backs of those with bad credit, and that there was nothing about the operation that seemed like a "public service."

The reader had no obligation to express righteous indignation, or to storm away from his encounter. He expressed his opinion after the classmate told him about the operation. The classmate changed the subject, they moved on in their conversation, and the two parted amicably -- unlikely to cross paths again soon personally and certainly not professionally. 

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