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Cold Winds and Hot Dogs

"Hot Dog Man" Billy Connell faces his toughest opponent yet: the Franchise Tax Board.

Billy Connell of Surf Dog
Nathan Weldon

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.

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