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Orlando Sentinel

Puerto Rican Festivities Make The Best Of A Taxing Situation

By Iván Román

April 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Lined up in the "drive-through" in front of the Treasury Department to drop off your income-tax return?

Grab a cup of passion-fruit juice sweetened with Equal to drink behind the wheel.

Or did you walk into the lobby to hand in the "painful one," as it's called in Puerto Rico?

Sip some coffee to lessen the stress, or move to the merengue beat on the taxpayers' line.

This "party" was typical for the annual tax-deadline day, advertisers and all. DJs from the Z-93 salsa station told jokes and blasted music on giant speakers, livening up the party for those fulfilling their civic duty.

And that was before the live bands came on. In Puerto Rico, we don't mind a little pleasure with our pain.

"This is part of the Puerto Rican culture," Treasury Secretary Juan Flores Galarza said while personally collecting tax returns from people passing in their cars. "We look for any excuse to celebrate, even if it's while paying your taxes."

Flores apparently had something to celebrate.

He seemed well on his way to his goal of collecting $400 million on Monday and Tuesday, $30 million more than last year on those days. About 92,000 more tax returns came in Monday than last year.

By noon Tuesday, $80 million had been collected in just in the main building.

And the government needs the money. Officials have already suggested putting off planned tax breaks and putting new excise taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and 4x4 vehicles to help balance the $22 billion budget that takes effect in July.

But until then, the island's current budget is in the red. Corporate taxes are still trickling in too slowly.

But on a brighter note, the island's and the U.S. economies are heating up after last year's doldrums made even worse by the Sept. 11 attacks. Aggressive tax collectors have rounded up about $190 million, and they are still on the prowl.

The classic salsa song by Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz boomed over the speakers Tuesday: "Aguzate, que te están velando." ("Stay sharp, you are in their sights.")

Tato Fontanez is not one of those they have to watch. He had all his paperwork ready in January. But like every year, he waited to come to the Treasury Department on tax-deadline day to be part of the party.

"We love all this, and it united us more as a family," said Fontanez, 46, physical-plant and activities director for a private school. "My wife comes and my brother-in-law, and we go have drinks and dinner afterward. I fulfill my responsibility, and I feel happy about it."

Many speculated about how much of what they just paid would be lost to corruption.

"There is a lot of corruption, but I see the infrastructure and the improvements to health care and recreational services," said Leila Maldonado, 44, an economist and executive assistant with five dependent daughters on her tax return. "A lot of work is getting done."

But on tax day, they moved to the beat and put those nasty thoughts behind them.

Once they handed in the "painful one" shimmying to some salsa, some relieved the stress by eating a little cup of Smart Start cereal and taking a challenge to lose 6 pounds in two weeks.

Or they went to say hi to Miss Universe 1985, Puerto Rican beauty Deborah Carthy Deu, who handed out samples of Advil to those who drove by.

She grabbed the DJ's microphone to offer a little advice: "The important thing is that you do your civic duty, but ease that pain a little, too."

Anything for a buck.

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