OROVILLE -- Elizabeth Reynolds has never lived in Contra Costa County. The Oroville grandmother wants to be very clear about that.
And she certainly didn't die there.
Much of this was in doubt over the last two months, at least in the eyes of the Contra Costa Tax Collector's office, which garnished Reynolds $413 state income tax refund to help pay off the county debt of a similarly named dead woman it insisted was her. Inexplicably, the Oroville Reynolds' social security number somehow was attached to the Contra Costa Reynolds, who passed away more than a decade ago.
When she challenged the county, the alive-and-kicking Reynolds found herself in an epic bureaucratic nightmare, leading to countless phone calls, e-mails and faxes. She finally got her money back, but is still miffed about what she calls "identity theft" by the government agency.
"I was gobsmacked because they didn't even seem to be bothered by it," Reynolds, 56, said of the errant bureaucrats. "Every time I mentioned the words 'identity theft' they lost their little minds."
As for the tax collector, he acknowledges his office screwed up by not recognizing that Elizabeth Reynolds, the Rossmoor woman who owed the agency about $4,000, had died in 1999. A property tax debt is written off once the individual dies, Tax Collector Russell Watts said.
"It looks pretty embarrassing," said Watts, adding his department "profusely apologized."
The ordeal began April 29 when Reynolds received a notice in the mail that her California income tax refund had been seized by Contra Costa to pay off a debt.
Reynolds' husband called the tax collector office and got a definitive response: "This isn't your debt, this is your dead wife's debt," Reynolds said. He told the worker his wife of 39 years was alive and well.
Reynolds called the tax collector's office herself the next day and told an employee: "I'm not dead yet, I'm feeling much better."
"We were laughing at the start because we thought it was funny and we thought right when we told them about the mix-up they'd fix it," she said.
The clerk corrected the computer entry and said someone had mistakenly attached her Social Security number to the dead woman's information. But Reynolds was advised to call the Franchise Tax Board to get her money back.
That touched off a series of marathon phone "on-hold" sessions, Reynolds said. A state senator's aide, whom she asked for help, told her to be patient and wait for a human being. "I finally said, 'OK, I'm gonna stay on hold. If the Second Coming happens, I'll be on the phone,'" the Sunday school teacher said.
Ninety minutes later, a Franchise Tax Board representative told her: "We didn't do this, Contra Costa did this."
Reynolds called Contra Costa back and was told she would be reimbursed the $413 once the state sent the money to them. Multiple calls and several weeks later, she said she was told the county was still waiting on the state.
"I called the Franchise Tax Board again and they said, 'We mailed the check two weeks ago,'" Reynolds said.
At this point, Reynolds, who re-enacts 16th century Scotland life in Renaissance Faires, turned Mary, Queen of Scots, and got medieval.
"I was really, really ticked," she said.
On May 23, the county told her the check was in the mail, a repeated refrain over the next weeks. By June 3, no check had arrived and she said she went up the chain of command. By that point, her original plan to use the refund to fly to Texas for the birth of her grandson had been nixed because the couple, of modest means, could not afford the rising plane ticket price.
Finally, on June 6, the county overnighted a check.
Reynolds was an unfortunate victim of the Franchise Tax Board's Interagency Intercept Collection Program, which allows government agencies and California colleges to intercept tax refunds, lottery winnings and unclaimed property disbursements from individuals who owe them debts.
The intercept program requires Social Security numbers to garnish tax returns, which forces the county office to do some investigating because that identifier is not included with property tax records. A five-person, in-house tax compliance team uses Lexis Nexis and other information databases to track down the information.
The "clerical error" that afflicted Reynolds appears more egregious because the deceased Elizabeth Reynolds' middle initial is "C," while the Oroville Reynolds' middle name is "Ann."
Reynolds is memorializing her travails on Facebook page she started, "Pickpockets With Nametags."
"It's not easy being dead," she said. "It really cramps a girl's style."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.