Thursday, June 30, 2011
DEPEYSTER — Enos Yoder fiddles with a metal gear and won't make eye contact with a stranger who is asking him about his troubles with the state Department of Taxation and Finance. Instead, he looks out onto his field, where a two-horse sleigh is carrying a stack of hay on a cart, ridden by a young man probably in his teens.
Mr. Yoder, who owns a machine shop business, explains his problems politely, although with few syllables.
The department, he says, wants him to file his sales taxes electronically rather than mailing them in as he has done for years. Also, the state wants to know his phone and Social Security numbers.
There's only one problem: he's Amish. He doesn't use electricity, doesn't own a computer or a phone, and doesn't have a Social Security card.
Technological advances in the outside world are making life more complicated for this Christian sect, which holds fast to the traditions of its forefathers and shuns modern conveniences.
But those traditions are increasingly clashing with 21st-century government mandates.
"They want to do everything electronic," said Mr. Yoder.
This year, the Department of Taxation and Finance has made electronic filing of sales-tax returns mandatory. While those without access to Internet can request an exemption, something got lost in translation. According to interviews with members of the community and those who interact with them, a handful of Amish — furniture builders and shopkeepers, mostly — have received letters warning them that they face a $50 penalty for every return not electronically filed.
Department spokeswoman Susan Burns said in an email that the department is mandating the electronic filing to cut down on bank processing costs and to reduce errors in sales tax returns. She said the department would be "judicious" in levying fines against the Amish.
"Our expectation was that businesses with concerns about complying would call the Taxpayer Contact Center," she wrote. "According to the TCC, if someone called and indicated that they did not have a computer or broadband and they did not use a preparer, they were advised that they were not mandated to comply. This would most likely have covered the Amish."
But most north country Amish will not use a telephone.
Ms. Burns said in a follow-up email that the Amish could have another person call the department for them, or they could write a letter.
AN AMISH DILEMMA
Republican State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie is from Heuvelton, which is an Amish enclave. She first heard about the issues from Jonas Hershberger, an Amish furniture maker, who tried to file his $50 in sales tax via paper forms. The department wrote back less than a month ago requesting that he file electronically. He responded by letter, explaining his predicament, but the letters requesting e-filing continued, Mrs. Ritchie said.
Mrs. Ritchie contacted the tax department to intervene on his behalf, according to her spokesman, James E. Reagen.
"When they finally listened to what she was trying to tell them, they offered to call him," said Mr. Reagen. "We were like, 'That probably won't work out. You can if you can figure out a way to do it.'"
Last week, Mrs. Ritchie's office received word from the tax department that it would allow Mr. Hershberger to file his tax returns the old-fashioned way.
Mr. Reagen, who lives in Ogdensburg, delivered the notice from the tax department to Mr. Hershberger, who was happy to receive it, he said.
"He said he's heard some other Amish people who are having similar problems. I told him, if they are, to let us know and we'll be happy to go to bat for them with the state tax and finance people," Mr. Reagen said.
Mr. Hershberger was selling strawberries in Ogdensburg on Wednesday when a reporter went to his house on Irish Settlement Road in Heuvelton, so he could not be reached for comment.
His father, Peter Hershberger, said that the electronic filing issue is of grave concern to Amish businesses.
"I don't blame the state" for its desire to require electronic filing, said Mr. Hershberger, 62. "They want to do it their way, and we're getting caught up in it."
Most of the concern in the Amish community about changes in the American culture have to do with children, including the half-dozen youngsters whom Mr. Hershberger and his wife are looking after while their son is away.
"You live your way, we live our way, and it's a free country," he said. "And we hope it continues."
THE AMISH QUESTION
The Amish came to New York in the early 20th century and can be found in many counties, including Jefferson and Lewis, as well as St. Lawrence. They shun ostentatious colors or variation that would bring attention to themselves. The attire from one to another does not vary much. The women usually wear purple body-length dresses and bonnets. Most men sport beards and wear blue shirts, gray slacks and black shoes. They speak English with an accent that is flavored by a German dialect, a reminder of where the Amish first began to flourish in the 18th century.
The north country community, known as the Swartzentruber clan, is considered more conservative than Amish clans in other states, said Karen Johnson-Weiner, a SUNY Potsdam anthropology professor who has written books on the Amish.
And those who moved to the Heuvelton area around the 1970s are an even more distinctly conservative group, seeking more separation from the outside world.
"There are lots of different ways in which Amish communities differentiate themselves," Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. The Heuvelton-area Amish "have put extreme limits on technology."
Ms. Johnson-Weiner said advancements in society are putting more pressure on a group that resists, at once, change and the outside world.
"People drawing up the procedures just never thought about" the Amish population, she said.
The Amish studies department at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College estimates that New York's Amish population at 12,000, increasing 19 percent from 2009 to 2010.
Most people see Amish buggies and will note the result of the first clash between the state and Amish. In the 1980s, then-state Sen. H. Douglas Barclay helped broker a deal with the Amish requiring them to put orange reflective triangles on their buggies for road safety.
But with each passing decade, more conflicts between the Amish community and the outside world arise. Patriot Act provisions have increased requirements on photo identifications, which the Amish shun, Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. Those rules have complicated banking and travel for the Amish.
Several Morristown Amish are involved in a federal court battle over the government's efforts to require their homes to include smoke detectors, engineering plans and outside home inspections.
"Things that we can't imagine living without, they're rejecting," Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. "That's going to bring them into more and more conflict. It's not that they're changing. We're changing in ways that are making things more and more difficult for them."
IN AMISH COUNTRY
Cars travel sparsely even on the paved roads of the bucolic Amish country. When they do, two horses may jockey and jostle in fear when a utility truck passes too closely on a narrow road, jostling the family that's sitting in the black buggy.
The road to Eli Yoder's house near West Lake Road starts out paved, then turns into a dirt path. In an adjacent field women pick strawberries and wave at a stranger driving by. A few young boys in matching blue shirts and gray slacks, with stray hats, dive under some farm equipment as the car approaches.
Eli Yoder knows about the problems with the state: Enos Yoder, the machine shop owner, is his first cousin. Since Eli Yoder is a sustenance farmer, the issue hasn't affected him yet.
"Yet" is the key word for him, as he explains, with serene concern, the changes that the 21st century Amish face.
"You know how it used to be," he said with a few young children watching the conversation with curiosity. "Things have changed."