Friday, September 03, 2010


Shivering with trepidation, I’ve decided to be a more assertive consumer. Not belligerent, you understand, but more inquiring. I’ve been too much the passive consumer and obedient remitter. Here’s an account of my swordplay in the face of the bureaucratic dragon.

First came my house: I challenged the county property tax assessment though everyone predicted they would find many reasons to raise the value and thus my taxes. Instead it soon became obvious that when the house was first valued the assessor had the assumption that everyone lived as well as she did. The disintegrating roofs, the nonexistent foundations, the twice-flooded crawl-space, the asbestos-contaminated insulation, the two north-side windows covered from the inside and never insulated -- none of that had registered with her. After a guided tour, she dropped the value by one-fourth. My joke has been that if I could have persuaded her to go down into the crawl space, she would have dropped it by half.

Then I realized that I hadn’t checked online to see how my bank account was doing. It’s at a credit union in Portland where it’s been for decades, but the internet access has been rendered dubious by the refusal of the website’s ISP to certify it as genuine. I get an announcement that suggests that the website is a phony to trick me into depositing money to the wrong place. When I called the credit union and raised questions, the tech head fluffed me off and told me to ignore it. For a bank? Nope. Still, I wanted to know how things were, since I’d dropped my checkbook into a big puddle and it dried all stuck together and illegible.

I was overdrawn. Bigtime. $30 a throw and another $15 added on this end by the merchant. Ten percent of the month’s income gone. I was aghast. In ten years I’ve NEVER had an overdraft! Now I had half-a-dozen because I hadn’t known to stop. There had been no notification, either by mail or email or phone call. (“We stopped notifying people because they never paid attention anyway.”) In the Sixties when we were overdrawn, the bank called up, we jumped in the pickup and drove over with more money, and that’s all there was to it.

I did a war dance, except that it as more like a panic attack. It took a couple of days to calm down. Then I started doing research. First, I discovered that this is considered standard practice. Second, I discovered all the places where one reports unfair usury and so on in Oregon and downloaded their advice. Third, I discovered that I HAD made an error that resulted in one set of overdrafts (the wet checkbook) and I HAD kited checks, thinking they would be deposited by mail when in fact they were deposited electronically -- MUCH more quickly. A new change.

Now that I felt sheepish and much calmer, I wrote out a list of questions, gathered up my records, and called the credit union. I explained who I was, where I was, how long I had banked there, how old I was, that I was retired on a limited income, and the mistakes I had made. The woman to whom I was talking brought up my account on her computer and we worked it through.

One of my concerns was that the overdrawn checks might be sent back for collection a second time and incur a second overdraft fee. Or the debit would show up later and throw my totals off. I have NO cushion of extra money. I simply paid the local bounced check when I got my cat food order, plus their fee of $15. It turns out that big stores routinely send a check through the second time without imposing a fee. It’s the small local stores who add on the $15. (They also gave me the wrong kind of cat food. Sigh.)

I had thought that I had overdraft protection because of having a Silverline account tailored for seniors. This turned out to be untrue. One can have overdraft protection one of two ways: either by allowing overdrafts to come out of a savings account (I only have the minimum amount in mine, which is a prerequisite for membership) or by having a line of credit. For some reason my line of credit was closed out a year ago March, probably when I closed out my VISA. Maybe it was the same thing. Now I’ll carry a line of credit just for overdraft insurance. The interest is 9.9% which I was assured was “very low.”

Then, because I was being reasonable and inquiring, because I’d been a member since way back, since I had an accumulated “points” total of some huge amount (I HATE “points” -- sorta like S&H green stamps -- because they are transparent bribes.), and since I have excellent credit (which I did not know), she removed four of my $30 fees. She evidently had a little check list on her desk. She said that was the maximum number and that if I had asked for the fee to be excused, it would have counted against me, which seemed a bit of a Catch-22.

Nevertheless, on the whole it was encouraging. So I trotted down to the Town of Valier to pay my water bill. I had just learned from attending town council meetings that the water bills are figured in part on the number of fixtures one has in the house. When I moved into this house, there were a working stove, washing machine and dryer, refrigerator, and bathtub. They almost immediately began to fail. The house had been classified as a “rental” -- not worth new appliances. I replaced stove and fridge, and replaced the bathtub with a shower. I wash my clothes at the laundromat in Conrad where the water comes out of Lake Francis instead of our Valier wells.

When the clerk went back through the records to see what I was being billed for, there was no record of anyone noting the number of fixtures. The operating guess meant that I have been paying $5 extra every month since June, 1999. Over ten years, close to a thousand dollars! I’m tempted to demand it. I know the clerk will figure it out because she’s just that kind of scrupulous person. If she’d been at the desk when I moved here, the error wouldn’t have happened. The plus is that the cost and installation of the new water main and water meters probably will mean that I’ll be paying slightly less per month, even including my pro-rated part of the cost.

For most of the people in town, this sort of thing occupies all their time, which explains why few of them write books.

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