April 26, 2018

Consumer Bureau Looks to End Public View of Complaints Database

When he contacted Midland, a representative suggested that he simply pay off the balance owed, Mr. Perry said. So he filed a complaint with the consumer bureau.

Thirteen days later, Midland sent Mr. Perry a letter: “Midland Credit apologizes for the inconvenience caused to you.” The collection firm agreed to close the disputed account, end collection efforts on it and instruct the credit bureaus to delete the record from their files.

“I don’t spend a lot of time feeling grateful to the federal government, but I was really grateful to the C.F.P.B. at that moment,” Mr. Perry said. “We need more accountability and transparency from our financial institutions, not less.”

Financial institutions, however, say the database can be misleading because the agency publishes a record of all the complaints that it receives, without vetting them. The companies also argue that they already have channels for resolving customer disputes.

“Publishing unverified complaints — or, worse, using those complaints to paint a picture of guilt in the public domain — is irresponsible,” said Richard Hunt, the chief executive of the Consumer Bankers Association.

Mr. Mulvaney’s disdain for the complaints database has already lessened its use. The New Economy Project, a community organization, has shifted its focus to reporting disputes to other regulators, including New York’s attorney general and the state’s Department of Financial Services.

“When Mulvaney stepped in, we saw the writing the wall and stopped advising our clients to file C.F.P.B. complaints, which anyone paying attention to what’s going on at the agency can see would be an exercise in futility,” said Sarah Ludwig, the New Economy Project’s founder and co-director.

A bureau spokesman declined to comment further about the agency’s plans for the complaints database. Last week, the agency put out a public call for feedback on its complaint process — a standard precursor to making changes.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/25/business/cfpb-complaints-database-mulvaney.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Your Money Adviser: For Workers Without Retirement Savings, State-Run I.R.A.s Can Pay Off

Some workers may be unable to delay claiming benefits past age 62, if they are in poor health or unemployed. But others simply may be reluctant to postpone the benefits because they lack savings. State-based individual retirement accounts that automatically enroll workers who don’t have retirement benefits through their employers can help meet that need, Pew’s report said. Workers can delay claiming their federal benefits, and instead withdraw an amount equal to what their monthly benefit would be from their so-called auto-I.R.A.

For example, if a worker retiring at 62 would get $700 a month in benefits, but had $8,400 in a state-based auto-I.R.A., the worker could wait a year to claim the benefit and instead withdraw $700 a month from the retirement account. The monthly benefit a year later, when the worker was 63, would climb to about $750.

The approach can especially benefit younger, minority and lower-income workers, who are less likely to have job-based retirement plans, Pew said.

Under a simulation run by the Social Security Administration at Pew’s request, Pew found that if workers contributed 3 percent of their income to a state-run auto-I.R.A. for 31 years, starting in 2019, nearly 40 percent of them could delay Social Security by a year or more. (The model accounted for workers entering and leaving the program, and for older workers who would contribute for fewer years.)

States have been pursuing the plans even though Congress has scaled back rules meant to encourage their creation.

Oregon, for instance, completed a test of its OregonSaves program last year, and began expanding it statewide in January. As of mid-April, more than 600 employers had registered for the program, and more than 31,000 employees — more than three-quarters of those eligible — were enrolled, with about 10,000 making contributions, Oregon officials said.

New York recently said it was considering an auto-I.R.A. program, with plans to offer it in two years.

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Here are some questions and answers about state-based auto-I.R.A.s and Social Security:

If I am automatically enrolled in a state-based I.R.A., can I drop out if I choose?

Yes. In general, the plans automatically enroll eligible employees and set payroll contributions at a fixed percentage — say, 5 percent. But workers can opt out of the programs or reduce the amount withdrawn from their paychecks, at any time.

How do I determine my “normal” retirement age for Social Security benefits?

Your normal retirement age — the age at which you receive full federal benefits — depends on the year in which you were born. If you were born in 1960 or later, your full retirement age is 67.

How early can I claim Social Security retirement benefits?

The earliest age to claim retirement benefits under Social Security is 62, but you generally will receive a significantly reduced monthly payment. Someone who would receive $1,000 a month at a normal retirement age of 67, for instance, would receive $700 at age 62 — a reduction of 30 percent, according to Pew’s report.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/your-money/state-retirement-accounts.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Wealth Matters: An E.R. That Treats You Like a V.I.P.

Paying more for better, faster care may not be fair, but the concept has been around for decades.

Concierge physicians often charge patients directly, bypassing insurance companies that discount their rates. They do this through annual membership fees but also with charges for each visit. In return, patients get direct access and more time with a doctor.

Top hospitals have also started to provide concierge services, offering programs with stately names that are meant to coddle dignitaries, celebrities and international patients paying their own way. In New York, Mount Sinai Hospital has its Executive Services Department, the Hospital for Special Surgery offers its Ambassador Services, and Weill Cornell Medicine provides its International Patient Services.

But emergency rooms by law treat the sickest patients first. If you’ve been shot, you’ll be seen right away. If you’re stable, you’re going to wait — and you could keep waiting depending on who else comes in.

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Changing rooms at Priority Private Care. The center has 1,100 members, from about 350 families. Credit Kholood Eid for The New York Times

According to research by ProPublica, the average time a patient spends in an emergency room in New York State before being sent home is three hours. In certain hospitals in New York City, the wait can stretch to closer to five hours.

Waiting in emergency rooms is the norm. In Maryland, it’s about three and a half hours on average; in North Dakota, the wait is comparatively speedy: You’re in and out in about an hour and a half.

A lot of people are fed up with the process, but few can do anything about it. That’s where Priority Private Care, with its care center on the Upper East Side, saw an opening for a clientele familiar with the costs and benefits of concierge medicine.

Dr. Bernard Kruger, a board-certified physician in oncology and internal medicine, started the company 18 months ago with two partners. He had a concierge medical practice for 15 years but saw its limitations, particularly on weekends if a patient was hurt and needed an X-ray or blood work.

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He got the idea for a concierge emergency room after helping a patient, an actress, who had fallen off a horse. “I brought her to Mount Sinai,” Dr. Kruger said. “The head of the department came down. We still waited five hours for a CAT scan. I said something is wrong here.”

The Priority Private Care facility is sleek and modern, with a Chuck Close painting hanging on the wall. In addition to being well staffed, the center has the imaging machines and laboratory equipment for blood work to get results quickly and help doctors make a diagnosis.

Dr. Kruger summed up the experience: “You get seen right away. You get treated right away. You have a consistent doctor with you.”

It has its limits. It is not equipped to handle a gunshot wound, for instance, and it is not a surgery center. But according to a 2013 study by Truven Health Analytics, about three-fourths of emergency room visits by people with insurance did not require emergency room-level care.

That’s a lot of waiting (and unnecessary visits), given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 141 million emergency room visits each year. The same C.D.C. study said that 11.2 million emergency room visits resulted in people being admitted to the hospital and 1.8 million, or about 1 percent, of those visits ended with people being admitted to critical care units.

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The founders of Priority Private Care are Andrew Olanow, left, and Benjamin Kruger and his father, Dr. Bernard Kruger. Dr. Kruger summed up the experience at the center: “You get seen right away. You get treated right away. You have a consistent doctor with you.” Credit Kholood Eid for The New York Times

The founders of Priority Private Care envisioned a service focused on three areas. The first is emergency care. They believe they can handle about 80 percent of the cases that require emergency care.

The second is access to a network of specialists and the ability to get patients in to see someone quickly. This was one thing that attracted Russ Coniglio, a businessman who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., but keeps an apartment in Manhattan.

“You call a specialist on Park Avenue, and they say six months,” said Mr. Coniglio, who works in the beauty care business. But when Dr. Kruger calls a specialist, he said, “they say come right over.”

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“I don’t know how you put a price tag on it,” he said. “If you have a problem and wait three weeks for the appointment, that’s hard to do.”

Mr. Coniglio also put his children on the plan, and both of his college-age sons have used it for emergency services for sports-related injuries.

Those medical connections also extend to getting a patient admitted into a hospital through its V.I.P. services, if additional care is needed.

The third is convenience for any ailment, like a sore throat or a cough, that crops up after hours or on the weekend. “As long as we have to staff a full facility to effectively run empty, people can use us for convenience services,” said Andrew Olanow, a co-founder of Priority Private Care.

The center differs, though, from hospital emergency rooms, which have to take anyone who walks in off the street. Priority Private Care is not obligated to do that, though Mr. Olanow said it would.

“If they’re gushing blood, we’d stabilize them and walk them the one and a half blocks to Lenox Hill,” he said of a nearby hospital.

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The center has the imaging machines and laboratory equipment for blood work to get results quickly and help doctors make a diagnosis. Credit Kholood Eid for The New York Times

And the center, which is regulated as an urgent care facility by New York State, offers free care to the schoolchildren and teachers in its neighborhood as community outreach.

Texas has addressed concierge emergency rooms in a different way. The state allows free-standing emergency rooms, many of which act as concierge providers. The advantage is the greater attention and the quicker passage through the emergency room. Like Priority, though, if you’ve been shot or need surgery, the staff members will get you to a hospital emergency room.

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“I get to spoil my patients and go over every lab and sit with them,” said Dr. Harvey Castro, a former emergency room doctor who is now medical director of Coppell ER in the Dallas area. “We have extra staff who can go and walk a person’s dog. We’ve picked up children at school.”

In lieu of a membership fee, Coppell ER bills insurance companies and collects the hefty emergency room payments. That can be lucrative for the emergency room, if expensive for the insurance company.

Priority Private Care’s membership fee decreases as more family members are included. Mr. Wilson said it was $5,000 for him, $3,000 for his wife and $2,000 for their daughter.

The center has 1,100 members, from about 350 families. Mr. Olanow said it planned to cap membership at 2,000 to 2,500, depending on how crowded the facility got.

On a given day, the center, which has two doctors and a physician assistant ready to go, sees four or five patients. A typical emergency room doctor sees three patients every hour.

But like a hospital emergency room, it also gets patients who come in with nonemergencies. Mr. Wilson, who lives just a few blocks away, said he had awakened one morning with a pimple and wondered whether Priority Private Care could take care of it.

“It was really bothering me,” he said. “They said come on over.”

When the concierge E.R. is empty, a visit for any ailment is welcome.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/your-money/concierge-emergency-room.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Sketch Guy: Fake Experts Abound. Here’s How to Find (and Be) a Real One.

I didn’t realize that there was a way to fix this problem. In fact, I didn’t even know exactly what the problem was until I read David Baker’s new book, “The Business of Expertise.”

What’s so compelling about Mr. Baker is that he’s an expert on being an expert. And because he is so knowledgeable about what true expertise entails, he is able to help both real and fake experts alike. If you’re a fake expert, this book will teach you how to become a real expert (assuming you actually care about that). And if you’re a real expert, this book is a road map to converting your insight into greater impact and financial security.

One of Mr. Baker’s key insights is the decoupling of time and results. Experts can often see a problem and quickly provide a solution, and that makes them valuable, even though it appears easy and quick in each instance.

In fact, it’s not easy at all. You become an expert through repeated exposure to similar patterns. After doing hundreds of financial planning meetings with new or potential clients, I started noticing those patterns. Eventually, I got to the point where in the first 10 minutes of asking about people’s goals, I often knew exactly where they were headed, what sort of risk they might be comfortable with and where the challenges might be.

Don’t worry that you won’t be rewarded for your speed, once you do get faster. Recall the tale of the old lady with the squeaky floorboard. It had been squeaky for 20 years. She finally called the wise old carpenter. He came in, stepped on the floorboard once and then twice, then took out a hammer and nail. Finally, he pounded the nail into the floorboard.

He handed the lady a $100 invoice, and she wanted to know why 10 minutes of his time required such a big payment. “Oh,” said the carpenter. “I forgot to itemize that.”

Nail: $1.00

Knowing where to pound nail: $99.00

She paid. And Mr. Baker taught me much more about the value of knowing exactly where to pound.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/your-money/experts-david-baker.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

I.R.S. Website Crashes on Tax Day as Millions Tried to File Returns

It was unclear what caused the problem, which lasted from the early morning hours until a little after 5 p.m. David Kautter, the acting I.R.S. commissioner, who happened to be testifying before Congress on an unrelated issue during the failure, told lawmakers that “a number of I.R.S. systems were unavailable” and that the agency was working to fix the problem. He later apologized for the situation.

The I.R.S. said that the problem was most likely related to a hardware issue and was not the result of a cyberattack. Congressional aides who were monitoring the situation on Tuesday said that they expected the I.R.S. to have to reboot its entire computer system.

Lawmakers and former government officials blamed an antiquated computer system that has deteriorated as a result of budget cuts for the tech malfunction. Since 2010, the agency’s total budget has fallen from about $14 billion to $11.5 billion, and its staff has shrunk by 20,000, to nearly 76,000. The tax code has only grown more complex during that period and the population of the United States has increased, along with the number of people who file electronically.

A top I.R.S. official warned Congress in October that a “catastrophic” system failure was just a matter of time.

“The I.R.S. needs to upgrade its I.T. infrastructure, not only to help ensure reliable and modern taxpayer services, but also to mitigate risks to the system,” Jeffrey Tribiano, the I.R.S. deputy commissioner for operations support, told the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee. “We are concerned that the potential for a catastrophic system failure is increasing as our infrastructure continues to age.”

At the congressional hearing, Mr. Kautter lamented the fact that much of the I.R.S.’s computing hardware is obsolete and that a significant portion of its software needs updating. He said that the agency faced more than two million attempted cyberattacks per day and that it desperately needed more resources to upgrade its systems and to bolster its defenses.

John Koskinen, the former I.R.S. commissioner who left the agency last year, said that the agency’s computer system had deteriorated after years of neglect and that it likely crashed as a result of increased strain ahead of the filing deadline. Last year, five million taxpayers filed on Tax Day.

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“I kept telling Congress, if funding continues to be constrained, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when the system fails,” said Mr. Koskinen, who filed his taxes over the weekend. “You really are rolling the dice when you operate that way.”

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The I.R.S. initially urged taxpayers to try to complete their filings ahead of the deadline, despite the malfunction, prompting some confusion about how to go about doing so.

Among those who did not have to worry about filing late was President Trump, who requested a six-month extension to file his returns because of their complexity, according to the White House. The I.R.S. said it was expecting about 15 million people to request six-month extensions.

The crash was reminiscent of the problems that plagued the Affordable Care Act’s online health insurance exchange under President Barack Obama. It came on a day when Mr. Trump and his top advisers were trumpeting the tax cut passed by Congress late last year.

“President Trump was able to fix a broken tax system,” Mr. Mnuchin said during the New Hampshire event on Tuesday afternoon.

The malfunction comes as Republican lawmakers have been mulling legislation to restructure the I.R.S., which will face additional strain as it tries to issue new guidance and regulations to clarify lingering questions about the new tax law.

The issue of overhauling the I.R.S. has been a challenging one for Republicans, who have long criticized the agency for unfairly targeting conservatives. Some lawmakers, such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, have vowed to “abolish” the agency.

In recent months, though, Republicans have reversed course. Leaders of the Ways and Means Committee have introduced a bill to “modernize” the agency, moving it away from outdated technologies and refocusing its mission on customer service.

“Our goal is to redesign, refocus and rein in the I.R.S.,” Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the Republican chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said on Tuesday. “Redesign the I.R.S. by insisting they bring back to Congress a comprehensive restructuring of the organization to focus on customer service.”

Democrats seized on the computer failure on Tuesday as evidence that Republicans, who pushed the tax overhaul through Congress and have starved the agency of funding over the years, had been negligent.

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“It’s clear from today’s events that the I.R.S. needs adequate funding to protect and operate its I.T. systems,” said Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “What you’re seeing today is not just the responsibility of the I.R.S., but of the years of Republican Congress neglect, too.”

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/17/us/politics/want-to-pay-your-taxes-come-back-later-says-irs.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Your Money: Marriott’s New Loyalty Program: Not as Bad as Starwood Fans Feared

Any evaluation of a loyalty program begins with the earn-and-burn analysis: What do you get in exchange for your loyalty, and what can you trade it for when you want to redeem? According to David Flueck, senior vice president of global loyalty for Marriott, hotel guests will earn about 20 percent more points than they did previously.

That number is meaningless, however, if the points are worth less when they’re redeemed. Marriott, which completed its acquisition of Starwood in September 2016, is moving to three-tier pricing in points for free rooms — a standard price and then peak and off-peak rates coming next year. Within that kind of plan, there is a lot of room for Marriott to improve its own economics at the expense of frequent customers.

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The restaurant at the Sheraton in Mendoza, Argentina. The Marriott program now covers 6,500 hotels. Credit Alejandro Kirchuk for The New York Times

Mr. Flueck made the following points when I pressed him on this: There are more properties where standard award pricing will fall than there are where they will rise. There will be roughly the same number of peak and off-peak nights. And he answered with a straight-up “no” when I asked him, on behalf of loyalists of the Starwood Preferred Guest program like myself, whether the changes were designed to devalue the program for Starwood members, who were often able to get up to (a quite generous) 3 cents per point in value when booking free rooms.

Loyalty brings perks in addition to points, but companies don’t want to make it too easy to earn them. Starwood members used to be able to qualify for platinum status after just 25 stays. Now, you’ll need to rack up 50 nights. The company will allow people to qualify under either the old rules or the new ones this year.

Many perks remain intact for people who reach the platinum level and higher, however, including club lounge access, upgrades to certain suites and a 4 p.m. checkout at every hotel (except resort and convention properties under some circumstances).

Also, Marriott travelers who regularly stay in lower-priced properties in parts of the country with no luxury hotels get some welcome news: The company did not follow the lead of airlines that have tied status more closely to revenue. At Marriott, a night is still a night, whether it’s at a Courtyard or a Ritz.

“For a road warrior always staying in secondary markets, we didn’t want to make it harder,” Mr. Flueck said.

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Assessing the changes will be complicated enough for many travelers. But the analysis gets more confounding when you consider the various credit cards on offer. Instead of consolidating its portfolio with one card issuer, Marriott chose to maintain its relationship with both American Express and Chase. Both companies introduced new cards Monday.

The annual fee for the new Premier Plus Chase card is $10 more, though it will also offer more points than the current Premier plastic. Cardholders will need to alert the company if they want to switch.

The more interesting developments here, however, are on the American Express side. It is adding a “Luxury” American Express card that will be available in August and require a $450 annual fee. It will earn six loyalty points for every dollar spent at Marriott hotels, three at restaurants and airlines, and two points everywhere else.

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The Sheraton Miyako Hotel in Tokyo. Many perks remain intact for people who reach the loyalty program’s platinum level and higher Credit Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

While comparisons with the old program get tricky, for some time now Marriott has been allowing Starwood members to transfer their points into Marriott’s existing program at a one-Starwood-for-three-Marriott ratio. I ran my own numbers on card spending from 2017 (and made some wild guesses about future travel spending) and found that the points I earn will fall by about one-third.

At first glance, this would seem to matter a great deal, especially to people who like trading points for airline miles. While Marriott is preserving that feature and the bonus points that it sometimes gives out during the transfer, earning fewer points through card spending means fewer miles on the other side of the trade.

So who would add this card (or stick with the program at all, for that matter)? Well, consider the other perks. A $300 annual credit for any money you spend at a Marriott property brings the annual fee down to $150. Then, you get a certificate for a free night stay at all but the most expensive hotels. That could be worth that remaining $150, easy. Cardholders will also get the speediest Wi-Fi in hotels without having to pay for it.

Finally, anyone who manages to spend $75,000 per year on the card will get platinum status without even having to lay a head on a bed. That has the potential to annoy people who have to hit elite tiers the hard way, but Marriott believes that it can handle any influx of newbie platinums given the small number of cardholders who spend that much.

Current Starwood American Express cardholders will be able to count any spending from Jan. 1, 2018, onward toward the $75,000 tally if they switch to the new card this year. No change to card numbers will be required. (Also, cardholders of the old-school American Express Platinum card will continue to get automatic Marriott gold status.)

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Given all that, plus a promise from American Express to give sign-up bonuses to people who upgrade to the new Starwood card, it seems that it’s worth giving the newly combined program a year or two to see how things shake out. I’m looking forward to not having to stay at inconvenient Starwoods anymore, since Marriott is bringing many more properties into the program.

Still, I’m not sure these benefits are so good that they merit switching for people who are already happy with their current earn-and-burn strategy. If you like a simple cash-back card, those products still exist (and my colleagues at Wirecutter have a guide to help you pick one of those). Cards from Chase and Capital One that offer generic points that can be used in other ways remain valuable, too.

Even after nearly two and a half years, Marriott still isn’t saying what it will call this new loyalty program, or even if it has ruled out Starriott. “We knew people were eagerly anticipating being able to earn and redeem across one program,” Mr. Flueck said. “We’ve done that as quickly as we could.”

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/16/your-money/marriott-starwood-loyalty-program.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Wealth Matters: When Your Fixer-Upper Is Your Hometown

On her return to her hometown, Ms. Moore found that philanthropy takes finesse. “I didn’t walk in and say, ‘I’m back, and I’ve brought a bunch of money, so let’s fix ourselves up,’ ” she said. Instead, she paid for a study to see if anything could be done. It turned out there was a lot.

Ms. Moore is the sixth generation of her family to live on the same farm, where she has upgraded the farmhouse substantially and transformed the farmland into the Moore Farms Botanical Garden.

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Ms. Moore, the sixth generation of her family to live on the same farm, transformed the land into the Moore Farms Botanical Garden. Credit Sean Rayford for The New York Times

Her credentials as a philanthropist are well established. She has given $70 million to the University of South Carolina, which named the business school after her, and made a $10 million gift to Clemson University, where her father was a star football and baseball player.

But Ms. Moore knew she was going to need the town’s constituents, regardless of age or race, to buy into a vision they all could share. There were more than a few doubters, she said.

“I had a lot of credibility in the town because of my father and grandparents, not because of my resources,” Ms. Moore said. “You couldn’t do it without that. I’ve known people who’ve gone into towns with a large amount of money, and it failed. It’s hugely complex.”

Like much in philanthropy today, many of these makeover projects require a mix of giving and investments with a social return so they can be sustainable. That combination helped Hamilton, Mo., population 1,809.

In 2008, two of Jenny Doan’s seven children gave her a sewing machine designed for quilting. Twelve feet long and seven feet wide, the machine was too big for the family’s home. So they bought a building to house it. Real estate was cheap because the town was struggling and many buildings had been neglected.

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At the suggestion of one of her sons, Ms. Doan began to make YouTube videos on how to quilt. The videos took off. She kept sewing and making videos, and the family enterprise, the Missouri Star Quilt Company, kept buying and fixing up buildings.

The company now owns 26 buildings, including 14 quilt shops, three restaurants and a quilting retreat house for women, where up to 40 visitors can stay.

“We bought as many buildings as we could,” Ms. Doan said. But they all required extensive work before the Doans could use them.

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Barbara Miles, the owner of the East Main Market, has exhibited artwork in her shop during Lake City’s annual ArtsFields festival, which Ms. Moore organized. Credit Sean Rayford for The New York Times

She said the company had poured all of its profits back into the town for many years. It even put in the sidewalks along Main Street. Missouri Star Quilt now employs 450 people, mostly from the town.

“This was one of the poorest counties in Missouri, and now people have a job,” Ms. Doan said.

Rebuilding a civic space can be daunting and take years, if not longer, said Paul S. Grogan, president and chief executive of the Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations. He said it was important to record small milestones.

“The little victories add up to something significant,” said Mr. Grogan, whose background is in community development. “It becomes substantial. In a neighborhood accustomed to failure, you generate some success.”

Ms. Moore said she had started with the Bean Market, a historic building that was “spit and taped” together. It is now a central event space for Lake City. She moved on to the old feed and grocery store, which is now a Smithsonian-certified art gallery that hosted an exhibition of the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya in 2014.

But she has also funded less-glamorous tasks, like running high-speed fiber-optic lines into town.

For community leaders who lack resources, Mr. Grogan said, rehabilitating just one house or creating a community garden can have a catalytic effect. “You think, ‘How could those things possibly make a difference?’ ” he said. “But they do.”

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Eventually, though, these towns need to attract outsiders to keep them viable. Ms. Doan’s quilting stardom — her YouTube channel has nearly 500,000 subscribers — drew tourists to Hamilton. That, in turn, brought in other businesses.

“In the beginning, not everyone was happy we were turning our farm community into a quilting community,” Ms. Doan said. “For those people who weren’t happy, we hired their children, and now they love us.”

In Lake City, Ms. Moore knew she had to create an event to bring in visitors. Plenty of people go to nearby Charleston for its historical charm and opera festival and to Myrtle Beach for its golf and 60-mile stretch of coastline, but Lake City was not on anyone’s must-see list.

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The chef Marcus Samuelsson, who owns Red Rooster in Harlem, started Harlem EatUp!, a weeklong food and cultural festival in the neighborhood, to highlight its businesses. Credit Emon Hassan for The New York Times

In a meeting with advisers, some of whom she had known since she was a girl, one talked about an art festival in Grand Rapids, Mich., that is supported by members of the DeVos family, whose wealth comes from Amway, the multilevel marketing company. Ms. Moore thought that doing something similar with art from Southeastern states might work in Lake City.

That festival, ArtFields, is now in its sixth year. When it opens next Friday, 400 works of art will be on display in buildings that Ms. Moore has renovated and in downtown shops.

One shop owner, Barbara Miles, met with controversy last year when she selected a provocative tapestry from the festival to hang in her store, the East Main Market. But Ms. Moore said she had decided the artwork should stay. “It was a real humdinger of an image,” she said.

Some philanthropists are drawn to the challenge of renewing neighborhoods in big cities.

Marcus Samuelsson, the world-famous chef who owns Red Rooster in Harlem, started Harlem EatUp!, a weeklong food and cultural festival in the neighborhood, four years ago.

He said the festival, which draws attendees from the city and beyond, helped 80 businesses in the neighborhood. But Mr. Samuelsson said he was proud that 40 percent of the events were free, up from 20 percent when the festival started.

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Harlem is a neighborhood with a deep cultural history, but Mr. Samuelsson saw this festival as a way to highlight its businesses. His goal has been to use a week of fun to bring economic benefits to Harlem and Spanish Harlem by connecting event sponsors with local chefs and restaurant owners.

“It’s a great place to live, to open a business, to create jobs,” he said. “But it’s also important that the restaurateurs meet sponsors like Ernst Young or Citibank. That’s massive because the next time they need a business loan, they might be coached by Ernst Young and get the loan from Citibank.”

That added benefit of opening up people’s eyes to a community is something all of these endeavors have in common.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/13/your-money/philanthropy-town-makeover.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Your Money: Who Is a Public Servant? Borrowers Have a Lot Riding on the Answer

Nobody with a brain or a heart would design a program like this from scratch. Still, our overall federal student loan system is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster that resulted from well-meaning people bolting together various loans and repayment plans over the years.

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After a flip-flop on qualifying for a student loan forgiveness program, “I spun out of control, trying to figure out what my recourse was,” Mr. Francum said. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

And so it goes with the federal public service loan forgiveness program. The big idea here was to make public service more attractive, as higher education (including advanced degrees that are mandatory in many fields) became more expensive.

But as I’ve written in recent weeks, many borrowers have received bad advice from their loan servicers and ended up in the wrong type of loans or the wrong repayment plans. Even borrowers whom you would expect to be experts, like the Department of Education lawyer who sent me a despairing note this weekend about her own encounters with FedLoan, have trouble getting a firm grip on their loan status.

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Michael Francum, who has a master’s degree in social work, exhibits excellent student loan hygiene. He got himself into the right loan and the right kind of repayment plan. He then sent in an official Employer Certification Form to be sure that his work for the National Association of Social Workers — a nonprofit organization that is in a tax category known as 501(c)(6) — qualified as public service. In 2014, FedLoan sent him official notice that it did. “That was exciting,” he said.

The story changed the next year, however, when he called to get an update on his countdown clock. A phone representative told him that his employer did not in fact qualify and that its decision was retroactive, wiping out credit for payments he had already made.

“I spun out of control, trying to figure out what my recourse was,” said Mr. Francum, who lives in Washington. “It’s a huge financial cloud. Should I buy a house? All of these decisions are waiting.”

He talked to family and colleagues and considered consulting a lawyer. But FedLoan phone representatives implied that he should have known that his employer was somehow suspect, he said. Eventually, he gave up. Both FedLoan and the Department of Education declined to answer any questions for this column about him or others, because of active litigation over similar issues.

Another borrower I heard from this week is a psychiatrist in New Jersey, who insisted he not be identified because he did not want his loan woes to be the first result patients saw if they searched his name on the internet.

When he was considering leaving a job at a nonprofit hospital, he called FedLoan for guidance. After the phone representative told him that any new job “should” be eligible, because patient care was indeed public service, he took a job at a similar salary doing similar work for a for-profit entity.

But FedLoan rejected the certification from his new position. Now if he wants to rejoin the forgiveness countdown, he must change jobs again. If he does not, he will probably need to spend an additional decade, at least, repaying much more debt than he would have otherwise.

Lori Gramlich had a similar distressing experience after taking a job at the Maine chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, where she is executive director. She no longer qualified for forgiveness, FedLoan told her. What baffled her was the fact that she had previously worked in a similar position at another organization, and FedLoan had blessed that role as proper public service.

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So what made the two jobs different? Ms. Gramlich has no idea, and she said she had not been able to get an explanation from FedLoan that made any sense to her, though one representative told her in December that a rule had changed.

“I was flabbergasted,” she said, while describing being passed from department to department. “I worked for the state for 13 years. I know bureaucracy. This is not my first rodeo. But at one point, I lost it, just sobbing, wondering what I was going to do.”

These borrowers are not alone. As of 2016, according to FedLoan data that the Department of Education used in a presentation, FedLoan had processed 1,068,888 employer certification forms and rejected one-third of them. Of those rejected, 21 percent presented an unqualified employer, though it’s not clear how many were close calls, as the National Association of Social Workers may have been.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a scorching report last summer about an array of public service loan forgiveness messes. It noted that some borrowers reported months of delays in getting answers about certification form questions. One complainant reported that his form was rejected because of employer ineligibility while his co-worker’s was approved a week later.

As for that litigation I mentioned before, one lawsuit over certification problems does shed some light on these matters. The American Bar Association and four individual borrowers, some of whom experienced the same FedLoan flip-flop as Mr. Francum, sued the Department of Education in late 2016. In a brief last year, the department, opining on the topic of whether people can rely on FedLoan not to change its mind, said that any response from FedLoan “does not reflect a final agency action on the borrower’s qualifications” for forgiveness.

In other words, that certification form is by no means certain. Which is pretty rich, given that the Department of Education introduced the forms several years ago precisely because so many people were confused about whether their employment qualified. So good luck to you if you work for, say, a 501(c)(6) and want some financial certainty in your life. (I know of no employees of a 501(c)(3) organization whose employment was rejected, and the Department of Education website indicates that none of them should be. Please get in touch with me if it has happened to you.)

And no, FedLoan will not precertify a job before you apply. Nor will it allow a forward-thinking employer to send in a job description for preapproval before trying to hire someone. Once upon a time, FedLoan’s website encouraged employers to brag to prospective employees about current workers who had received certification, but that ended quickly once the American Bar Association’s dumbfounded lawyers pointed it out in a legal filing.

That suit shows no sign of settling soon. So people like Ms. Gramlich wait and wonder. “I’ve been advocating for less fortunate populations my whole adult life, and here I am one of those people now,” she said. “And I cannot get out of this mess.”

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/13/your-money/public-servant-loan-forgiveness.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Your Money Adviser: Tax Dawdlers, It’s the Last Minute. Here Are Tips on Filing.

There’s still time to make a contribution to a traditional Individual Retirement Account and take a deduction, if you qualify, to reduce your taxable income. More than a third of I.R.A. contributions at Fidelity Investments are made in the last three weeks before the tax deadline, said Maura Cassidy, vice president of retirement at Fidelity. So if you haven’t made your contribution yet, she said, “you’re not alone.”

I.R.A. contributions for the tax year 2017 can be made until the April 17 deadline. The tax-deductible limit for a traditional I.R.A. for 2017 is $5,500 for an individual — $6,500 for those age 50 and older. (Your deduction may be limited, depending on whether you are covered by a retirement plan at work, and how high your income is.)

Self-employed people and freelancers can put even more money away by making contributions to a Simplified Employee Pension plan, known as a SEP I.R.A. The contribution limit for a SEP I.R.A. is 25 percent of income, up to $55,000. (If taxpayers get an extension to file their return, which gives them six more months to file, they also have until the extended tax filing deadline — Oct. 15 — to contribute to their SEP I.R.A.)

If making an I.R.A. contribution by check, Ms. Cassidy said, be sure to note what tax year the contribution is for so the contribution is properly credited.

Another step that can save you money is to make a contribution to a health savings account. If you have a specific type of high-deductible health insurance plan, you have until April 17 to contribute to an H.S.A. for 2017 and take a deduction from your taxes. You needn’t itemize on your tax return to claim it.

You can make an extra H.S.A. contribution even if you already contributed some money in 2017 via payroll deduction at work, as long as you don’t exceed the maximum, said Chris Byrd, executive vice president of WEX Health, which provides technology that helps employers and workers manage H.S.A.s and other health benefits. For 2017, the contribution limit is $3,400 for an individual and $6,750 for families. If you’re unsure if your health insurance plan qualifies for an H.S.A., check with your employer or your health plan administrator.

For those with last-minute questions about their return, the I.R.S. offers answers on its site.

Once your taxes are filed, reward yourself: Many businesses offer freebies on Tax Day. Participating locations of Great American Cookies, for one, will offer free cookies on Tuesday.

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Here are some questions and answers about the tax filing deadline:

What if I mail my tax return?

Mailed tax returns must be postmarked by April 17. Some post offices stay open late on Tax Day, although that’s less common now that more people file electronically. It’s best to check with your local post office for details. (You can use the post office finder tool online.) The United States Postal Service says at least one office in New York City will be open until midnight on Tuesday: the James A. Farley Post Office at 421 Eighth Avenue.

How do I obtain an extension to file my tax return?

If you can’t get your return done by Tuesday, “there’s no need to panic,” Ms. Labant said. You can obtain an automatic six-month extension by submitting I.R.S. Form 4868 by the filing date.

All taxpayers can file the extension form electronically via the I.R.S.’s Free File program, even if their income doesn’t qualify them to use the program to prepare their tax return, said Eric L. Smith, spokesman for the I.R.S.

If you’re owed a refund, there’s not much to worry about if you file a bit late, Mr. Smith said. Late-filing penalties are based on the amount of tax owed, so you won’t be dinged (unless you’ve miscalculated, and end up owing money). You can’t get your refund until you file, though, so it makes sense to get the return in as soon as you can.

Unfortunately, an extension to file doesn’t give you an extension of time to pay if you owe taxes to the government. So you should estimate what you’ll owe and pay by April 17, Ms. Labant said, to avoid hefty penalties and interest charges. “When in doubt,” she said, “round up.”

If you can’t pay what you owe now, Mr. Smith said, file and pay what you can, and apply for an installment plan for the balance. You can do it online. “It’s easier than people realize,” he said.

What if I pay estimated taxes?

If you’re self-employed and make quarterly estimated tax payments, the first quarterly deadline for 2018 is also April 17. So make sure you get that check in on time, too.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/13/your-money/tax-tips-last-minute.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

A New Challenger to Equifax’s Employee Verification Service


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A new start-up, Truework, will try to compete with an Equifax service known as The Work Number, which helps employers handle requests to verify a person’s employment history and salary. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

A start-up is taking on Equifax’s employee verification service, and it now has a bit of a war chest too.

The new company, Truework, will try to compete with an Equifax service known as The Work Number, which helps employers handle all of the irritating notices they receive from banks and other entities that want to verify a person’s employment history and salary. The gears of consumer credit can’t function well without this process, but it’s a pain for employers and, as a result, a lucrative business for Equifax.

Most employees do not know that their employer hands over sensitive information to Equifax and similar services each pay period, even though workers have agreed to some kind of employment check somewhere along the way. And Equifax does not notify those workers each time it gives information to a bank or a potential landlord.

Truework aims to change that, promising that employees will receive a message at their work email address each time an entity seeks information about them. The recipients would click to see what information their employers plan to share and can approve the handoff.

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“These things were built for lenders, which is fine,” said Ryan Sandler, a Truework co-founder who previously worked at LinkedIn. “But they left employers and employees as the second and third priority. We wanted to flip the model on its head.”

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Truework’s dashboard for human resources managers, showing outside companies’ requests for verification of employee information. Credit Truework

Employers pay to use these services, as do banks and others that grant credit. Mr. Sandler said that his company intends to charge banks at least one-third less than Equifax does. This week, it announced that it had raised $2.9 million from several investors to help the effort.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/your-money/equifax-challenger-truework.html?partner=rss&emc=rss