The certified letter from the state demanded that Deena Mount pay a 6-year-old debt. Amount owed: five bucks. Cost for the certified postage: $6.51.
And if she doesn't pay up, her former employer, the California Emergency Management Agency, is prepared to deploy the dreaded "Franchise Tax Board offset process." That's bureaucratese for, "Pay up or we'll yank the cash out of your next state tax refund."
Mount is bewildered.
"It's not like I was trying to be deceitful," she said this week during an interview near the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs offices where she now works. "All they had to do is call me."
That's not how the state functions. A business might simply write off a $5 debt, but this is public money. There are policies. There are procedures.
Mount's story begins on a rainy March night at Sacramento International Airport in 2007. She and three other agency employees were headed to a Southern California conference with boxes in tow when they decided to park in the structure near the terminal and not the far-off economy lots.
State policy says that's a no-no absent a health or safety reason that must be stated on expense claims.
Mount's manager was one of the four travelers that night and said she would sign off on the $12 parking upgrade, $5 more than the uncovered lots in the hinterlands.
So Mount paid it, submitted a reimbursement form signed by her manager, but without a rationale for the parking choice. The agency approved it. The state cut a check that included the full parking fee.
Meanwhile, the state Controller's Office, which writes those checks, audited the claim on May 1, 2007.
"The rule of thumb is that the expense must be in the 'best interest of the state,' " the auditor wrote at the time. "If there is a more cost-effective location to park, the expensive alternative should not be considered."
Mount should have heard about the audit and settled up with her employer right away, but last week's nastygram was the first she'd learned of it, she said.
That's no excuse, said Tina Walker, spokeswoman for Cal-EMA, adding that state workers know the rules. "It certainly wasn't new news to her."
Collection letters are supposed to be the last move to recoup money, not the first. Agency officials on Wednesday couldn't find any records of prior notices to Mount. Nor could Walker explain the six-year lag between the audit and the agency's collection letter.
"The delay could be for any number of reasons," she said, including short staffing, furloughs or workload issues. The state has since automated expense claims.
Right now, the agency has 72 collection cases it's trying to resolve, totaling about $46,000. About half are travel adjustments and 26 of them are in the tax-refund threat stage, like Mount's.
Mount is repaying the $5. She considered seeing what would happen if she didn't.
"If it took six years to get this," she said. "I could be retired in five years before they catch up."