In the 1990s, Mike Lano took professional photos of pro wrestlers sparring. Now he’s the one going to the mat – with the city of San Francisco over a tax bill.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to me, and I’ve been around pro wrestling and it’s about as ridiculous as it gets,” he said.
Dr. Lano’s day job in the 90s was dentistry, with a small practice near Sutter and Stockton. Each year, the city invoiced him for a business equipment tax called the “unsecured property tax”. In 2021, Lano received a collection notice for his 1993 tax bill.
“After 28 years they claim I was X days late,” he said. “I don’t pay a dime because I don’t owe it.”
THE SURPRISE LETTER IS COMING
The bill shows the city fined him $36 in 1993.
Then, over the Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden years, that $36 skyrocketed with interest and fees to over $450. Here’s the rub: Lano insists he paid his bill on time, in person, in 1993 (and 1994 and 1995).
He says he hasn’t heard from the city for 28 years.
“No emails, no calls,” he said. “Nothing.”
OVER 40,000 OLD DEBTS ON THE BOOKS
The city told us it had 47,753 unpaid tax bills, totaling $146 million owed. The oldest accounts date from 1993, including Lano’s. So why is the city contacting him now, 28 years later, after he retired and moved to Southern California?
The city told us his account was part of “a concerted effort to try and clean up/solve old delinquencies.”
Lano reached out to NBC Bay Area Responds for help.
“When you started investigating, Chris, someone said he had filed a lien without my knowledge,” he said.
LINKS, BUT WHO KNEW?
San Francisco court records show the city filed a lien in 1993; refiled in 2003 and 2013. City says it sends out notices to people. But Lano says he hasn’t received a written review for about 28 years.
“Zero,” he said.
Lano listed his business address and phone number in the Yellow Pages in the 1990s. We know this because we checked old phone books at the library.
We asked the San Francisco Treasurer for copies of the notices he sent to Lano. The city sent us a statement saying, “we have millions of debts that we’ve been collecting for decades. So it’s not possible/practical to keep copies of everything sent.”
The city went on to say, “we will certainly review any evidence that he paid this bill in a timely manner (prior to 8/31/1993).”
That would be ideal. But Lano says his canceled check is long gone and the bank can’t help him. He shredded old files years ago, never imagining that in 2022 he would need papers from 1993.
“It looks like a total scam,” Lano said.
POSSIBLE SOLUTION: WAIT FOR IT
It’s a dead end.
Lano told us he was weighing his legal options. Or, he could just wait. After we started asking questions, the city told us there was a 30-year statute of limitations on his debts.
He can pay Lano’s disputed 1993 debt next year.
RECORD KEEPING COURSE
“San Francisco has all kinds of weird rules,” said CPA Larry Pon.
We reviewed Lano’s case by Pon for a lesson in record keeping. First, we agreed that you should keep your bank statements digitally, as your bank might not.
“Banks don’t guarantee they’ll have copies of all your records,” Pon said.
And second, pay close attention to any evidence that you’ve paid your taxes: local, state, federal – all of the above.
“It’s a good idea to keep copies of those statements or copies of those canceled checks to prove that you made payments,” Pon said.
So how long should a tax file be kept? The state says four years. The IRS talks about three to seven years. Lano goes further.
“Keep it for life,” Lano said. “Have it in the cloud…have lots of backup records. Not one source, but many.”
With the paper files, it was painful. But now it’s easier with digital files and cheap storage.
Two other tips: when you pay a tax bill, come back a month or two later. Make sure your payment has been recorded. Also, search court records from time to time – for yourself. Look for surprises, like privileges. To see something? Say something.