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In 1982, Michael Coomey paid $1,100 for a Triumph sports car, knowing it needed a lot of work. In fact, it was more a pile of parts than a motor vehicle.

Coomey did not pay sales tax on his new sort-of car. It was a private sale, with no dealer involved, and he believed you didn’t pay sales tax on a car until you registered it.

Coomey didn’t get his Triumph close to being ready for 37 years. And finally, when he did, last month, he got hit with an $11,232 bump in the road.

With work on his car advancing quickly, Coomey recently began making inquiries at the state Registry of Motor Vehicles.

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A half dozen trips later, he had established ownership (no easy feat) and completed an application for title to his vehicle.

Coomey dreamed of being on the road by summer.

But the clerk reviewing his application at the RMV in Worcester pointed out to him that he owed sales tax, dating back to 1982, plus a penalty and interest.

Coomey nodded. How bad could it be?

The sales tax was $617.50, she said. He winced. It didn’t sound right. But he said nothing.

And the penalty and interest?

That would be $11,232, she said.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Coomey blurted out.

“You are supposed to pay the sales taxes within 10 days of your purchase,” she said matter-of-factly.

“OK, but $11,232?”

“Do you want to continue?” she asked.

The clerk slid a one-page document itemizing what he owed across the counter to him.

Coomey staggered out of the office.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said last week while showing me his Triumph, which is still in pieces, though much larger ones than before, in the garage of his home in Paxton.

Coomey, 60, had been too stunned to ask for a breakdown of the penalty and interest. But he was convinced it was a mistake. So he returned to the RMV the next day.

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“You have to contact the state Department of Revenue,” the RMV told him, referring to the state agency that oversees tax collection.

When Coomey was a kid, his father taught him auto mechanics (and some other valuable lessons) as they spent long hours together restoring a 1930 Ford Model A in the family garage.

Almost 50 years later, restoring the Triumph became a similarly personal endeavor, and not only because it stirred good memories of his father.

In 2016, Coomey’s world was turned upside down when his wife, Susan, died of ovarian cancer.

“It was devastating,” he said, his eyes tearing up.

At a group bereavement meeting shortly after her death, one piece of advice that clicked with Coomey was to get busy with something, maybe a hobby that has long been on the back burner.

It was time to whip that pile of parts into something he could be proud of.

Coomey in his Paxton garage with the Triumph sports car that he is almost ready to put on the road.
Coomey in his Paxton garage with the Triumph sports car that he is almost ready to put on the road. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

So since his wife’s death, unless it’s too cold in the garage, Coomey works on the Triumph, a 1956 classic in green. He has put hundreds of hours into it.

After being turned away by the RMV, Coomey went to the Department of Revenue in Worcester. Sorry, he was told, there was nobody available. Instead, they gave him a telephone number to call.

When he did, it was another dead end. Coomey attempted to explain his situation. But he was cut off. “You can appeal online or on paper,” he was told (repeatedly).

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Coomey tried a couple of times to elicit more information on the phone but got nowhere. So he read up on the Department of Revenue’s website about tax abatements, which seemed like the only thing even remotely related to his dilemma. It occurred to him the only way for him to dispute the $11,232 penalty and interest was to pay it and then apply for an abatement. Not a good plan.

“I can’t pay out that kind of money and just hope I’ll get it back someday,” he told me.

I e-mailed Coomey’s one-page document — the one from the RMV clerk — to the Department of Revenue. Two days later, Coomey got an apologetic call from the agency.

One of the managers told Coomey that a review of his case showed the agency had incorrectly calculated Coomey’s sales tax by grossly inflating the sale price for the Triumph. When it calculates taxes on the sales of motor vehicles, the state uses as a sale price the higher of two numbers: the actual amount paid for the vehicle or its “book value.” (It guards against unscrupulously low values being claimed).

The state used the book value of the Triumph. But it used the wrong one. Why? Because there is no book value for that vehicle in 1982, when Coomey bought it. It apparently was never computed. So instead, the state used the 2019 book value of Coomey’s Triumph: $12,350. That’s a lot more than it was worth in 1982.

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What the state should have done is use the actual sale value. After all, Coomey had the bill of sale showing he paid $1,100 (“I’m an engineer; I save things”).

It was a foolish and lazy way for the state to deal with Coomey’s missed taxes. And just as bad was the way the state mindlessly fended off Coomey’s every polite request for an explanation.

With that crucial adjustment in the sale price, the sales tax Coomey owed plummeted from $617 to $55 (note: the sales tax in 1982 was 5 percent; it is now 6.25 percent).

And the penalty and interest plunged from $11,232 to $980.

So until my involvement, the state was prepared to overcharge Coomey by $10,814. It doesn’t inspire great confidence in our state tax collection agency.

But Coomey said he’s appreciative of a fair resolution.

And now he’s back to dreaming of getting behind the wheel of his Triumph by summer.


Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.