Forget the anti-tax tea parties. Chester may be facing a citizens' revolt.
Residents of the Delaware County city are planning to march on city hall tomorrow to protest what they call $3 million worth of "retroactive taxation" in the form of trash-fee bills - some more than a decade old - that showed up in the mail a few weeks ago.
"My parents, they can't afford it," said Gail McClary, who is organizing the march. "They have one for $700. Their neighbor has one for more than $2,000. My niece has one for $1,900."
Paying taxes in the middle of a recession is tough enough, she said. Getting hit with delinquent bills dating back to 1995 is the kind of stuff that triggers protests in Chester, where the poverty rate is three times that of the county.
"We're taking a stand," McClary said. "We want to know what happened."
So, what did happen?
According to Chester Mayor Wendell Butler Jr., the delinquent trash fees had been accumulating - with interest - since the mid-1990s. The city sent out the bills each year, he said, but its outdated computer system was unable to notify residents that they had failed to pay in the past.
Chester upgraded the system last year, and officials recently sent notices to thousands of residents to collect unpaid amounts.
"The money is due us, and certainly we need it so we don't have to raise property taxes," Butler said.
Butler said that the city would waive late fees and penalties as a compromise but that it isn't backing down on collecting past fees of $120 a year. He said residents could work out payment plans.
Attorney Joseph Oxman says he's considering seeking an emergency injunction in federal court on behalf of residents to stop Chester from collecting the fees. A class-action lawsuit is also possible.
"The question is: Is this a retroactive tax?" Oxman said, asking how the city could let the fees pile up for a decade or longer without informing residents that they were delinquent. "How hard is it to send out a notice?"
Many residents apparently believed that they had paid the trash fees when they paid off their delinquent property taxes in Media, he said.
"The city dropped the ball. The city made a $3 million mistake, and they're trying to get the citizens to pay for it," Democratic state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland said of the city's Republican administration. "There's no way you can bill a person from 10 years back and say, 'You owe this.' "
Butler said that residents who are older than 65 with incomes of less than $15,000 a year would not have to pay the fees. McClary said the city should eat the loss or use slots revenue from Harrah's casino to cover the fees. Tomorrow's march begins at 2:30 p.m. from Kirkland's office.
"We want these bills wiped off, everything gone, starting anew from 2009," she said.
"The city receives $10 million a year from the casino. Take $3 million and pay the bills off."