Sunday, March 29, 2009

I witnessed a miracle

My son Jeff’s 20th birthday was yesterday. I called him on his cell phone and left a message. I assumed he was at work in Austin, Texas, raising cash for his April rent payment. An hour later, he returned my call and said he was on his lunch break. I wished him a happy birthday and, not wanting to take up all of his short food recess, we finished the conversation in two or three minutes.

Talking on the phone may seem like something that’s to be taken for granted, but for me, this conversation—and every conversation with Jeff—is quite special. That’s because Jeff was born hearing impaired.

My first wife, Lisa, and I were pretty experienced parents, having had three children before Jeff was born. With each one, we’d count fingers and toes and hope that we had a healthy baby. When Jeff was born, we went through the same ritual and, sure enough, he had the requisite ten fingers and ten toes and all the rest of the standard equipment, all in the right places.

Unlike his brother, Danny, who was a colicky baby, Jeff was generally calm and happy and started sleeping though the night very early on. On a side note, we discovered that the two best remedies for colic are 1) a ride in the car, and 2) running the vacuum cleaner. I used to keep the vacuum cleaner in the hall outside Dan’s bedroom at night with the power cord strung into our bedroom. After one of us would make sure that he wasn’t wet or hungry or otherwise in distress, I would reach over and plug in the cord. Five minutes later, I’d pull the plug and hear nothing but the sounds of a sleeping baby. Our neighbors must have wondered about our unusual house cleaning schedule.

It was this parenting experience that caused Lisa to suspect that something wasn’t right about Jeff when he was only a month old. There was a difference in the way he reacted to her. The look on his face when she cooed at him and spoke babytalk just wasn’t what she was used to. She tried clanging a pot behind him and he didn’t flinch.

That was enough for her to know that he wasn’t hearing her. Lisa made an appointment with Jeff’s pediatrician, who arranged to perform a tympanogram. This is a test that measures the resonance of an eardrum and can detect the presence of conductive problems, which generally relate to fluid behind the eardrum, scarring of the eardrum, or malformed conduction bones.

The test did not reveal any unusual pressure or fluid behind Jeff’s eardrums. We would have been relieved if it had. These problems are routinely treated and generally result in no long lasting problems. Instead, we were referred to the Callier Center at the University of Texas at Dallas (

Jeff was tested on May 4, 1989 at the Callier Center, when he was only five weeks old. His hearing loss was determined to be bilateral (both ears) moderate to severe peripheral auditory impairment. (Click here to see the test results.) The audiologist told us that his hearing loss was on the order of 70 decibels. She characterized his threshold of hearing, which most of us experience as the soft breathing of someone in a quiet room with us, being the equivalent of standing close to a passing train.

With this extent of hearing loss, she told us that, even with hearing aids, he would not be able to distinguish subtleties in sounds. Speech therapy would be necessary and she warned that we should not expect his speech to ever be “normal.”

The next step was to fashion a set of hearing aids for Jeff. He was the youngest hearing aid patient ever treated at the Callier Center. Most parents, certainly first-time parents, would never have recognized the symptoms of hearing loss at such an early age.

Now we have to turn the clock back to Christmas, 1988. Lisa was pregnant with Jeff and we spent part of the day with her grandparents, Estill and Becky. Grandma Becky was not feeling well but was an expert at hiding it. We all knew she was scheduled to have heart surgery and that reality loomed over the festivities.

A short time later, Grandma Becky went through her surgery and there were complications. She remained in the hospital for a lengthy stay, all of us on pins and needles as she went through the peaks and troughs of recovery. Her prognosis, unfortunately, turned from hopeful to unpromising. I don’t recall if she was in the hospital on Jeff’s birthday, March 28th, but I do remember that she was hospitalized at the time we got the news about Jeff’s deafness.

In June, 1989, Lisa and her parents got permission to bring baby Jeff into the ICU to see Grandma Becky. I waited in the lobby with the rest of the family. When they emerged from the elevator a half hour later, Lisa told me that Grandma Becky was awake and happy to see Jeff. She had been previously made aware of his deafness, his trips to the Callier Center, and his prognosis.

She was also aware of her own prognosis and knew she wasn’t going to return to her home in Dallas. But she was pragmatic about that reality and was also deeply religious. She announced, in front of Lisa and Lisa’s parents, that when she went to heaven, she would have a talk with God about Jeff’s hearing loss.

Grandma Becky died on June 30, 1989.

Several weeks later, Lisa recovered little Jeffy from his crib, changed and fed him, and popped open the box that contained the tiniest little hearing aids you’ve ever seen. This had become a daily ritual, but this time Jeff protested when she inserted his hearing aids. Thinking that he might just be crotchety for some other reason, she didn’t think too much about his reaction.

Later in the day, she once again tried to insert the hearing aids. Jeff would have nothing to do with it, this time protesting even louder. That’s when it occurred to Lisa that something must be going on. She returned to her pots and pans experiment and Jeff not only reacted, but was startled and cried. “What the heck are you doing surprising me like that, Mom?” If only he could talk...

When the specialists at Callier Center reran the tests on Jeff, they found his hearing to be at 90% of normal. Checking back through the original test results and diagnosis, there was nothing that indicated a problem with either. There was simply no explanation, from a biological point of view, for his miraculous recovery.

We, of course, know that there is an explanation.

Thank you, Grandma Becky.

Jeff, on the right, with me and his colicky older brother, Danny.
Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Monday, March 23, 2009

Update: Travelocity bait & switch

I received a nonresponse from the Massachusetts Attorney General regarding my complaint about the bait and switch techniques applied by the online travel agent Travelocity. Click here to see the update and original post.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Perpetuating a falsehood

The chairman (or chairwoman, if you prefer—see Gender, The New Era Sex for more on this topic) of the board of selectmen made a comment to me after last week’s meeting adjourned. Still a little hot about the board’s decision to reduce our stipend to a dollar a year, she said to me “At least you’re going to get lifetime benefits.” I replied, “You don’t know that.”

This idea of lifetime health insurance for selectmen who serve two three-year terms has never been true. But, in spite of that fact, a group of ill-informed people still hold that belief and are willing to blog and distribute emails to perpetuate this falsehood. If you’ll bear with me through this rather lengthy blog post, you will not only see that I am speaking the truth, but you’ll become an expert in how pension benefits are calculated.

I served for three years on the Town of Sandwich finance committee before making a run for the board of selectmen in 2004. I won one of the two seats, the other one was taken by Doug Dexter, a fellow finance committee member.

When Doug and I sat down with the town manager to go through our orientation, he told us that the town’s health insurance benefit was available to paid elected officials. I found that interesting on two fronts: 1) In the three years I spent on the finance committee and throughout my campaign, I had never heard about this benefit, and 2) Having been on a bare bones health plan while building my fledging CPA practice, I welcomed the opportunity to move up to a more generous plan for about $500 less per month. I am, after all, a numbers guy and accepting this benefit was a no brainer.

Back to point one. I found it curious that this benefit, which had been in place for many years, was such a well kept “state secret.” It was a pleasant surprise for me and I thought then, and still do, that such a benefit would add to the number of self-employed, business oriented candidates who would consider serving the town as a selectman, assessor, moderator, or town clerk (the paid elected positions in town); assuming, of course, that candidates knew about this perk.

When Doug Dexter and I won that race, something very unusual had occurred in the Town of Sandwich. All five selectmen were Republicans, the first time anyone could remember this happening since Abe Lincoln was walking around the West Wing. Another unusual thing happened at that time: The long standing health insurance benefit became an evil waste of the town’s money. It seemed a bit interesting to me because the person who started the crusade against the villainous perk had watched from the sidelines for years, as a member of the finance committee, never raising an objection to it.

Not only that, but this person campaigned in the Cape Cod Times (I remember my photo next to Tom Keyes’ on page one above the fold) against paid elected officials having this perk by claiming that these people who serve for as little as six years would be able to retain this benefit for life—starting at age 55—on the town’s dime. He had even projected a figure exceeding a million dollars per person for benefits that the town would be on the hook for if we didn’t nip this suddenly important loophole in the bud.

Now we have the current chairman of the board of selectmen repeating the same, ignorant chant, having clung to this unfounded rhetoric for several years just waiting for the opportune time to unleash it on me (and Tom and Bill and who knows who else). The only problem is that it’s not true and never was.

Let me explain why none of us is eligible for a lifetime of health insurance benefits courtesy of the Barnstable County Retirement Board. The formula for receiving a pension from the Retirement Board is as follows:

First, you have to be employed by a government which participates in the Barnstable County Retirement Association (BCRA) for at least six years. During this time, you need to have payroll deductions directed into your account at the BCRA, however small. Unfortunately, that’s as far as the investigation went several years ago, hence the assumption that six years makes you golden. Lifetime benefits here we come! (Wait, we’re not done yet.)

Next, you have to apply a formula to determine your retirement benefit. That formula is: Take the average of the highest three consecutive years of pay times an age factor (the factor for 55 being 0.015) times the number of years of service. Okay, let’s do that for me. My highest three years were $1,500 for two years and $2,000 for the year I was chairman. That averages out to $1,667. Multiply by the factor for retiring at age 55 (0.015) and you get $25. Then multiply that product by six years of service and you get $150. That is the amount of my annual pension starting at age 55.

Lastly, there’s one little bugaboo that disqualifies me from getting a lifetime benefit. The result of the above formula must be at least $360 in order to qualify for a pension. And, yes, you must qualify to receive a pension in order to qualify for the health insurance plan.

The whole push for the town to be saved from these millionaire beneficiaries was fallacious (and salacious). And not only for the reason that it flat out wasn’t the truth, but also because the vote of town meeting to eliminate health insurance benefits for part-time paid elected officials had nothing to do with it.

For your benefit, Madam Chairman, I’ll repeat that for you. The vote of town meeting to eliminate health insurance benefits for part-time paid elected officials had nothing to do with eliminating the opportunity for someone to receive subsidized health insurance for life. Town meeting cannot vote to change the BCRA’s retirement formula. And it didn’t.

Anyone, even now, who contributes to the BCRA for a minimum of six years and who satisfies the formula I outlined above is entitled to a lifetime of health insurance benefits. In a deliciously ironic statement, the proponent of the citizens’ petition to eliminate health insurance for part-time paid elected officials said that he didn’t have a problem with raising the pay of selectmen. At least it would be transparent—right there in the budget for all to see.

So do the math. If we had agreed to raise the selectmen’s pay to $3,750 (and $5,000 for the chairman) in an effort to make things more “transparent,” the above formula would yield a $375 per year pension after a short six years, complete with lifetime health insurance benefits. (Always be careful with unintended consequences.)

What did the action of town meeting accomplish? It prevented part-time paid elected officials from participating in the town’s health insurance while they’re still on the payroll. The home rule petition specifically did not take away the benefit from anyone who was already entitled to participate as long as there is no interruption in their service. With the turnover on the board of selectmen, I am the only one who still qualifies to participate in the plan. And I do.

As I said before, I believe that health insurance coverage would have a positive benefit by encouraging younger, self-employed individuals to run for the office. Just look at the lack of competition for this year’s open seat on our board. Would it be that way if insurance were still offered?

People contemplating entering the race for the wrong reasons would be quickly identified by the electorate, so the risk of electing someone who just wants to get on the gravy train is unlikely. Even so, it would only be for a short few years—not a lifetime. But that’s all water under the bridge. It is what it is.

Below, I have printed an email that hit my Outlook last Sunday. A shorter version of this email was posted by our chairman in the Cape Cod Times online blog beneath George Brennan’s article about the selectmen voting to reduce their stipends to a dollar per year. Somehow, she has made the leap from this vote to pointing fingers at those of us who she falsely thinks are destined to be on the dole. The connection is pretty loose to start with, but this is the standard passive aggressive behavior I come to know and love from our leader.

For purposes of pointing out to those who may wonder what’s in the public domain and what’s not, any emails, letters, voicemails, etc., that are sent to or generated by a member of a public board relative to that board’s current or past deliberations is in the public domain. Since our board’s deliberation about the stipend reduction has concluded with a vote of the board, this blog post does not constitute further deliberation of an issue currently before the board and, therefore, is not a violation of the Open Meeting Law.

* * * * *

From: Linell Grundman

To: Undisclosed-Recipient:;

Sent: Sunday, March 22, 2009 7:50 AM

Subject: vote to give up stipend

Since as is so often the case, that the CCTime prints half the story I wanted to make a statement about the stipend issue. When the selectmen went from (3 full time 2 part time selectmen) to all "part time" selectmen a little over twenty years ago, the selectmen then got a small stipend. Currently it is $1500 for 4 members and $2000 for the Chairmen. Until we voted at town meeting a few years ago to ask the legislation to change allowing selectmen to be eligible for full time medical benefits for life after 6 years of service as a selectman, we had that expense as well. Currently we have only one selectmen serving who is eligible for life time health benefits. I'm grateful the town changed the health benefit criteria through a legislative act.

The day after I was elected I went to Town Hall and said I did not want the stipend. I was told it couldn't be done that I had to accept the pay. So I began giving my checks to various charitable organizations. I also realized that having at least some pay was not a bad thing as it actually was more professional. A year ago I discovered I could be of help to my mom and sister (my parents live with her) by sending my checks so mom could get regular hair perms etc. Mom was recovering and will never recover fully from a serious illness and being able to go get her hair done was a great boost to her spirits. I'm not trying to say what a good person I am....I'm just trying to as Paul Harvey use to say give you "the rest of the story."

My comments at the BOS meeting Thursday were an authentic expression that I really didn't want to be perceived as needing to grandstand on this issue. I also am not in the position to be as chevalier about this decision as my fellow board members. Since the economic future we all face will demand that I enter the work force full time soon, I am concerned about how the status of my work as a Selectman will be received on my resume. I made the choice to leave the work force full time, like many women do, in support of my husbands career and the opportunities of a swifter career rise for him, which bring obvious economic benefit to our family. Now my children are close to college age and I am preparing for the next part of my life. I am in a much different place then my fellows on this issue in a practical way and clearly because of the economic times. Though I would have given it up two years ago, I think differently now about the value of the stipend today on several points.

I'm glad people see the BOS giving up the stipend as a positive gesture and could have gone along with it without saying anything, except for this problem I have with trying to be honest. I will say not all people who have commented to me see it as positive. Some see it as a hollow political move. I knew I would take heat for discussing it last Thursday. In fact the selectmen had decided to take it out of the budget and I thought that was a done deal. I had no idea we were going to make a big thing about it. More to the point in terms of selectmen savings, I am grateful the town voted to take away full time health benefits from Selectmen who serve six years. Apart from being able to pay into a group plan while serving, I can't imagine how it makes sense to pay part time unpaid officials ongoing benefits. I truly am grateful to [name redacted by Randy Hunt before posting to this blog] for bringing this issue to Town Meeting and for the legislative act that got us out of that financial obligation. At every level of government we do indeed need to reform the approach to benefits.

When I started with the Federal Government in 1974 coming from my very straight and narrow Kansas upbringing I was soon saddened by what I use to call "the get over attititude" of Government employees. So much so that after 4 years I decided I would try the private sector. I went back to the Department of Defense one more time and eventually to the army, but I've never changed my opinion about the "get over attitude." I realize now it's not just the government, it's a lack of integrity. Over the years in many jobs and as a citizen I experienced the "get over attitude"....employers who hire illegals, private citizens who patronize those firms or pay people under the table, employees who think it's o.k. to take things from their employer, people paid under the table who don't pay taxes on what they earn....the list goes on and on. None of us is perfect but it would be nice if we could all play by the same rules. Obviously and realistically that's impossible. What has helped me a great deal, as I come to the end of my second year in politics, is discovering how many of those most critical of government apply a different standard to their own life when it comes to issues of integrity and fair play. It makes it easier not to get sucked into the absurdity politics is so often reduced to. Have a great day,


Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Sunday, March 22, 2009

CPAs' guaranteed employment act

Another tax season is in full swing. I hope all of you Turbo-Taxers are successful answering the myriad of questions correctly. Ah, the concept of simplifying taxes by asking plain English questions that anyone can answer. “Was this wash sale completed within 30 days of the conclusion of another wash sale involving the same stock issue? If yes…”

And what about the remaining few people who brave their taxes with a pencil and calculator? The instructions for Form 1040EZ are a mere 42 pages long. Remember, this was the form invented when the short form, 1040A, got too complicated. Instructions for Form 1040A are now 84 pages long. Double the complexity; double the fun! By the way, many years ago the short form was literally short—only half the length of a letter-sized sheet of paper.

If you’re tackling the long form, you’ll need to stay up a night or two reading the 161 pages of fascinating facts, tips and charts that accompany Form 1040. Practically a novel, there are more twists and turns and tangents than anything written by Dan Brown. The complex rules and frustration they generate result in a majority of people, even those with relatively simple situations, hiring professional tax preparers to get their returns filed.

That should convince anyone that tax simplification ought to be a top priority. In fact, there was an initiative started (which quickly fizzled) by the Bush administration to study our income tax system and to propose alternatives. At a press conference on November 4, 2004 the president said this: “We must reform our complicated and outdated tax code. We need to get rid of the needless paperwork that makes our economy—that is a drag on our economy, to make sure our economy is the most competitive in the world.” (He didn’t use a teleprompter.)

In a more carefully worded executive order of the president dated January 7, 2005, the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform was formed. This was a nine-member panel appointed by the president with the following marching orders:

“Submit to the Secretary of the Treasury in accordance with this order a report with revenue neutral policy options for reforming the Federal Internal Revenue Code. These options should a) simplify Federal tax laws to reduce the costs and administrative burdens of compliance with such laws; b) share the burdens and benefits of the Federal tax structure in an appropriately progressive manner while recognizing the importance of homeownership and charity in American society; and c) promote long-run economic growth and job creation, and better encourage work effort, saving, and investment, so as to strengthen the competitiveness of the United States in the global marketplace.”

The executive order required that only one of the options put forth by the panel be a Federal income tax. That is, the door was left open for one or more options that scrap the income tax concept for an alternative tax collection system, such as a national sales tax or a European-style value added tax.

The history of simplifying the Internal Revenue Code includes a number of efforts that accountants have dubbed the “CPAs’ Guaranteed Employment Act,” “Future CPAs of America Act,” and “If The Tax Code Gets Any Simpler, It Will Take A Genius To Figure It Out Act.”

At the time, I predicted that one of the first obstacles this panel would run into is the relationship between state income tax systems and the Federal income tax system. Forty-three states currently levy income taxes on their residents and nonresidents. Most of these state income tax laws leverage the Internal Revenue Code in determining what income is taxable and what deductions are available as well as how to perform many of the calculations necessary to arrive at one’s tax liability.

If you scrap the Internal Revenue Code for an alternative system, you are asking these 43 states to do the same. The last time I checked, most of our state governments are struggling to meet their current obligations and few, if any, have a lot of extra cash sitting around waiting to fund a complete rewrite of their income tax laws. So, chances were against this panel turning the current income tax system on its head and were for creating the next tax simplification (aka complication) act: “A CPA In Every Home Act.”

In the end, nothing happened. We were too busy handing out mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. Click here to see the executive summary of this blue ribbon committee’s recommendations.

If you didn’t click back there to see the report, that’s okay. It has already collected four years of dust and it is clear that the new administration and congress are not at all interested in giving up control of the puppet strings that have been created over several generations via the Internal Revenue Code. That means three things: 1) the Fair Tax Plan has no legs, 2) Congress will increasingly control how you behave and what you do, and 3) CPAs have a bright future.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bait & switch airline ticket offers

UPDATE: Click here to see the response I received from the Massachusetts Attorney General's office. Classify it as “nonresponse” or “pass the buck.”

* * * * *

What would you do if you saw a flat screen television set, regularly priced at $799—on sale for $599—but at the checkout stand, credit card in hand, the cashier said “That’ll be $799?”

I’m guessing you’d point to the big red sale tag and insist on the $200 discount. But when you motion towards the tag, it vanishes into thin air. Hold it a second. You look back at the aisle filled with the same on-sale TVs and every one of those tags also disappears.

Now you’re thinking Twilight Zone, or Candid Camera. When you look around the room for Rod Serling or Alan Funt, what you see is a giant store sign that reads: Travelocity.

Substitute an airline ticket for the television set and this is exactly what goes on every minute of every day. An email entices you to purchase a ticket at a great price. You then wade through the obligatory five or six screens to select your flight and seat, followed by the summary page which, at the very bottom after all of those rental car and hotel options, displays the magic “Book Your Flight” button.

In the blink of an eye, the next screen appears letting you know there’s a problem. “The new lowest available price is listed below,” it says. How about that? It’s now $200 higher. But wait. The old lowest price was just on the screen less than a second ago. How can things change in an instant?

What’s happening is that these online travel companies are allowed to sell one or two seats on these flights at a heavily discounted price. They then send out hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of emails touting the lower prices. By the time you get in line, online, the chance of picking up a ticket at this price is worse than winning the Daily Pick 3.

Travel companies are counting on attracting a lot of people to their websites and ultimately settling on a different, more expensive ticket. When I was growing up, that was called bait and switch. Nowadays, this happens via a convoluted myriad of computer programs and an infinitely variable database of ticket prices.

No doubt that there are reams of CYA documentation in the possession of the travel companies to ward off the inevitable probes by the states’ attorneys general, but I was so incensed recently trying to book a trip to El Paso, I documented this bait and switch and sent a letter to Massachusetts’ Attorney General, Martha Coakley.

Click here to see it.

I’ll provide an update if I hear anything.

P.S. Perhaps I’ll retreat to doing things the old fashioned way. I’m going call my local travel agent, if there are still any of them out there.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sands of Change: An update

Paul Schrader and I recently appeared on Spectrum, a WXTK radio show hosted by Judith Goetz. We talked about the Town Neck Beach erosion problem and our documentary, Sands of Change.

To hear the podcast of the Spectrum program, click here. Be patient. It's a pretty big file.

To read about and watch our documentary, Sands of Change, click here.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

From Helsinki to El Paso: An update

I received an unexpected email today. I love it when this happens.

It was from Cathy Alanen, wife of Erkki Alanen, who provided some interesting background on Erkki and their family. Erkki and I collaborated on a number of cartoons in the 1990’s, which are posted here: Cathy’s letter is included in the revised post.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mind if I look up your dress?

I grew up in El Paso, Texas, a city on the border of Mexico, separated from Ciudad Juárez by the Rio Grande. I suppose how grand the Rio Grande is depends on your perspective. Mexicans have a better name for it: Rio Bravo. Even skinny people can be brave.

Outside of irrigation season, you’d have a hard time floating a canoe in the river. In fact, wading across the river used to be the preferred method to enter the United States for maids, gardeners and annoying guys who insist on cleaning your windshield at stoplights for tips. Since September 11, 2001, border security has been beefed up a lot, making illegal entry a bit trickier. This has resulted in an explosion of unkempt yards, dusty houses and car crashes.

In 1989, I was an auditor in Dallas for KPMG. One of my clients had a manufacturing plant in Juárez with a warehouse/shipping facility in El Paso. I accepted a job with the company to be their plant controller and we moved back to El Paso after being away for about eight years.

Although I grew up in El Paso, my experiences in Mexico were limited to occasional trips across the border to take out-of-town visitors to see the open markets, glass blowers and to enjoy Mexican food accompanied by a couple of Tecates, Dos Equix or Coronas. One time we went to a bullfight, but it was such a traumatic experience for my future sister-in-law that the majesty of tormenting a bull to death was lost on us.

My command of the Spanish language was, to put it in a word, pequeño. In spite of having six years of Spanish classes in first through sixth grade, my vocabulary consisted of approximately 30 words, half of which would get me stabbed if I used them in a bar and the other half related to ordering things in a bar.

So the challenge of working in Mexico and learning to speak Spanish appealed to me. I bought a pocket-sized Spanish/English dictionary and showed up to work prepared to order a shot of tequila. Our plant was staffed with a few U.S. citizens—I don’t use the term Americans because we don’t have an exclusive on that title, given that everyone living on these two continents are Americans (North, Central and South)—and several Mexican managers, all of whom spoke English with varying degrees of skill.

One of the first activities I participated in on the manufacturing floor was inventorying parts. With my clipboard in hand and translation dictionary in my back pocket, I headed out armed with a magic, conversation starting phrase: “¿Qué es eso?” (What’s that?)

I walked through the aisles of the raw parts crib, writing down quantities from the inventory tags, and once in a while pointed to a bin and asked the materials supervisor “¿Qué es eso?” He would politely describe what the parts were, who we bought them from, and how they were used in the finished products. At least that’s what I thought he was telling me. He could have been telling me about his cousin’s wedding for all I knew.

Invigorated by my successful conversations about molded plastic parts, I was ready to take my newfound linguistic expertise into the accounting department. Accounting was staffed with a half-dozen wonderful ladies, none of whom spoke English (or wanted me to think that they didn’t). I arrived with the intention of performing a surprise petty cash audit.

Before I could announce my surprise audit, however, one of the clerks asked me how to book a particularly confusing transaction. Although my Spanish was far from fluent, my understanding of where to record debits and credits was impeccable, so I studied the invoice and quickly came up with the answer. Now, how to tell her…

Let’s see. How do you say “debit” in Spanish? It turns out that there’s a reason these pocket dictionaries fit in your pocket. They leave out half the words. I found “debt,” but there was no “debit.” What else do you call a debit? Got it. “Charge.” I’ll tell her to charge the invoice to this particular account.

“Se puede cagarlo aquí,” I said, pointing to the account in the ledger. The look on her face was utter shock. The room fell silent for a moment, followed by a burst of laughter when everyone realized what I meant to say. You see, the word for “to charge it” is “cargarlo.” That pesky missing “r” changes the word’s meaning to (and forgive me for being so literal with my translation) “to sh_t it.” It’s a word that’s normally used to describe the act of crapping oneself.

Undaunted, I pressed forward and flipped my pocket dictionary to find the phrase for petty cash. Damn! Nothing. Okay, how about “funds?” Found it. “Fondos.” And I remembered that they called the petty cash box something chica. I just couldn’t remember what the something was. So, here we go.

I made my announcement: “Yo quiero examinar sus fondos, chicas.” After just instructing this innocent clerk to defecate on the accounting ledger, I didn’t think things could get much worse. I was wrong. Who would’ve guessed that “fondos” also means slips, as in petticoats, and that “chicas” is slang for girls, as in chicks. “I want to examine your slips, girls.”

The accounting manager came over to me and suggested that we might want to have a quick meeting in my office before I say anything else. “¡Qué buena idea!” I said.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A calculator in one hand, a beer in the other

Click here to listen to the audio version. (On a high speed connection, these podcasts may take up to a minute to load. Be patient. If you're on dial-up, you can simulate a podcast by reading the following article out loud.)

I regularly meet with people who have an idea for a business and who want to know how to get started. Should it be set up as a corporation? An LLC? A sole proprietorship? Should it have its own bank account? What about insurance?

Often, my first response is “How do you plan to market this business?”

This, of course, elicits an array of interesting reactions. Squints. Head turns. Puzzled looks. They thought they came to an accountant’s office, after all.

I can talk for an hour (or for as long as you’re willing to pay my fee) about organizing and accounting for a new venture, but no business will gain traction unless it has 1) something to offer that people want, and 2) a plan for getting the word out.

I admit to not recognizing a great idea from time to time. (See an example of this in “A (Text) Message to My Kids.”) But I do know that the difference between an idea that takes off and one that doesn’t often has little to do with the idea and a lot to do with how it is marketed. (Check out “AD MAN!!!!!!!!” to see why this is true.)

So I encourage my entrepreneurial clients to list a dozen different ways that they'll market their new businesses. The first six are generally easy to tick off, such as printing business cards, sending direct mail pieces, placing ads in the various yellow pages, creating a website, joining a business development group (BNI, for example), purchasing newspaper, radio or television ads, etc. The next six become more challenging, but that’s where the payoff lies.

When I hung out my shingle several years ago—without a single client on my list—I was staring at the perfect opportunity: I had absolutely nothing else to do but market the business. I came up with 17 different ways to get the word out and went to work making it happen.

I strongly believe that the marketing plan for personal services businesses must reflect the personality of the owner. Even businesses that sell products sometimes take this approach, such as Wendy’s did with Dave Thomas playing the lead role.

For CPAs, this can be a real problem because we all know that CPAs are generally devoid of personalities. Only in the presence of alcohol, and plenty of it, do they crack their cocoons and emerge as nearly normal people. It doesn’t help their dancing though.

This phenomenon gave me one of my 17 marketing ideas. On a road trip to a NASCAR race in New Hampshire with my friend, Bill, we were listening to a CD filled with the Bud Lite “Real Men of Genius” radio ads. It struck me that morphing this concept into a CPA’s commercial would be terribly funny. Or a complete disaster.

By the time we got back from booing Kyle Busch and cheering for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the script was done for “Schedule F Filer.” Involving a guy who bungled his tax return by filing the farmer’s profit or loss schedule, it was destined to be one of the most unusual radio ads for a CPA practice ever. And that definitely fits my personality. I’m always on the lookout for things that surprise people and create interesting reactions.

I started by learning to play the music from the “Real Men of Genius” ads. It’s a piano piece in a major key so, trying not to be accused of unabashed plagiarism, I converted it to a guitar piece and changed the chords. It still reminds you of the Bud Lite ads, but it’s actually quite a different piece of music.

I then recorded the backup singer’s parts as a placeholder for another friend of mine I was hoping would do the singing for the final cut. When I listened to the rough cut, however, I became convinced that my struggling vocals were an important component to making the commercial even funnier.

The radio ad premiered three years ago and people either loved or hated it. Nobody ignored it. And isn’t that the point of an ad? I received phone calls and emails from people telling me to take it off the radio immediately and that they’d never come to me for tax or accounting help. I also received ten times that number of phone calls and emails telling me that they loved it.

So, without further ado, here it is.

Click here to listen to Schedule F Filer.

Schedule F Filer (Singer’s Parts in Parentheses)

Randy Hunt CPA presents: Real Taxpayers In Trouble (Real Taxpayers In Trouble)
Today we solute you, Mr. Schedule F Filer (Mr. Schedule F Filer)
You thought you’d be clever and take some big deductions (the bigger the better)
Only to find out that Schedule F is for farmers (Old MacDonald had a farm)
You wouldn’t know the difference between a steer and a steering wheel (and that’s no bull)
Now the IRS is coming to take your tractor away (I got a long row to hoe)
You should have left it to the professionals at Randy Hunt CPA (now I know much better)
Randy Hunt CPA will keep you on the straight and narrow
So here’s to you, Mr. Schedule F Filer (Mr. Schedule F Filer)

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt