HARD HITTER: Billy Connell, it seems, was born to fight. First, it was with Sister Agnes, his sixth-grade teacher at the Catholic school he attended back in New Jersey. When Sister Agnes made the mistake of smacking Connell with a ruler, he reciprocated by snatching it away and smacking her back. After that, he would take up boxing. By his own reckoning, Connell was one scary dude when garbed in silk Everlast trunks, stalking his opponents in the ring. As the Vietnam War was winding down, Connell enlisted in the Army and was lucky enough to be assigned to Europe instead of the rice paddies of Southeast Asia. While in the service, he fought strictly in the ring, emerging as the Army’s heavyweight champ in Europe. Later, Connell would go pro, amassing a record of 16-3-1 before hanging up his gloves. “I was a definitely a stay-away-from guy,” Connell said, describing his pugilistic propensities. He hit so hard, in fact, the bones in his hands would shoot out through his skin, and he has the scars to prove it. Today, however, Connell is best known around town as the Hot Dog Man, the ever ebullient poet of profanity and proprietor of the Surf Dog stand stationed right outside the entrance to the Carpinteria Bluffs.
Now at the age of 52, Connell is still fighting. This time, he’s taken on the toughest opponents of his career — the immovable objects to his irresistible force — the California State Board of Equalization, the state’s Franchise Tax Board, and the State Controller. The most cold-blooded, hard-hearted accountants I know live in mortal terror of ever receiving a call from any of these agencies. And yet, Connell could tell them stories to curl their toes and straighten their hair.
Connell said he got into the hot dog business 15 years ago because he just couldn’t find a hot dog he liked. Before that, he’d studied how to put out chemical fires, clean up toxic wastes, and remediate radiation sites. Given the curious composition of most industrially manufactured hot dogs, this might seem ideal preparation for his culinary inclinations. But I suspect those lessons in hazard control have proven more relevant to his 14-year battle with the state’s tax machine. The specific focus of Connell’s crusade could not be more obscure or arcane. It’s the fate of one tiny little comma inserted into an ancient passage of California’s Business and Professional Code. Say what you will about Catholic schools, the nuns have always been sticklers for punctuation, and Connell clearly learned his lessons well. But there’s a lot more than grammar at stake. Connell estimated the state’s position on this particular comma has been costing him up to $7,000 a year he shouldn’t have had to pay. To help veterans get back on their feet, the State Legislature passed a bill back in 1893 allowing veterans to “hawk, peddle, or vend” without having to pay “any license, tax, or fee whatsoever …” Because there’s a comma inserted between the words “license” and “tax,” Connell reads this to mean he is exempt from paying either a license charge or a tax. Makes total sense to me. But the state’s tax machine sees it otherwise. Teams of sharp-eyed attorneys insist the comma separating “license” and “tax” was an “inadvertent” mistake. Consequently, they interpret this section to mean Connell and other vets are exempt from “license fees” (see, no comma), but not exempt from sales taxes — which he doesn’t charge. For Connell, the stakes are bigger than his hot dog operation. He estimates the state’s ripping off thousands of vets — hawking snow cones, T-shirts, or even peanuts — for millions of dollars. But bigger than that, Connell charges — as he did again at a hearing this week — the government is breaking faith with the men and women who’ve put their lives at risk.
On the tax guys’ side, there’s a court ruling out there that suggests the meaning of the comma might be more complicated than Connell suggests. But on Connell’s side, the state tax code has been amended several times since it was first written in 1893, and the comma is still there. How “inadvertent” could it be? The courts have suggested this is a gray area crying out for legislative clarification. Since 1999, the legislature has tried to amend the language in favor of the tax collectors at least three times. But each time, Connell — a one-man lobbying tornado — claims he successfully fought them back. In the meantime, Connell has also secured letters of support from the likes of Congressmember Lois Capps, former state senator Jack O’Connell, and S.B. County Supervisor Salud Carbajal.
For Connell, these victories have come at considerable cost. He claims he was subjected to a full-body-search audit when he first publicly demanded to know why the Tax Guys weren’t honoring the law. His bank account was seized, his assets were frozen, all without a hearing, he said. When Connell decided not to pay, he charges the state twice ordered the county Sheriff to put temporary holds on his hot dog operation. It’s gone so far, he said, that state bean counters are assigned to spy on him, checking the precise number of hot dogs he’s selling.
If discretion is the better part of valor, the state should just back off. Give Connell his tax exemption, and give it to the other vets, too. If the state gives away billions in tax breaks to the oil companies and millions to yacht owners, why not a few thousand for the men and women who served? In the meantime, I don’t even like hot dogs that much, so serve mine with extra relish.