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Ask Amy: Gift-giving imbalance causes holiday stress

Dear Amy: My husband and I get along very well with his parents, but spending time with them around gift-giving holidays can be extremely stressful. My in-laws give my husband’s siblings much more in the way of gifts than they give us, both in monetary value and quantity. This is very hurtful for my husband.

Two of his siblings live with his parents and one lives in an apartment a few hours away. (We’re all in our 20s). We open gifts as a family when we are together.

For the past three years, we’ve tried to keep up with the “everyone opens one at the same time” pattern, but we’re often left with 10 or 15 minutes of not opening presents while his siblings open gifts from his parents. We’ve tried to casually bring it up by mentioning gift ideas a few months before each holiday, but my mother-in-law always stops us by saying she bought our presents ages ago, and she doesn’t want to spend any more money on us.

We’ll be having our first child (their first grandchild) next spring, and we’ve been considering withdrawing from these holidays. I don’t want to cut my in-laws out of holidays, but I can’t stand the thought of my child feeling the same way their father does. What can I do to change this?

— Upset

Dear Upset: You don’t outline any theories behind this gift imbalance, but I wonder if something as simple as gender or marital status might be factors. Your in-laws live with two of their children. You should assume that they have greater awareness of what these siblings might want/need because they share a household. If all of his siblings are single and/or female, his parents might be reflexively giving more to them because either they consider men to be harder to give to, or because they consider the two of you to be the equal of one of their other children.

Hinting is not going to fix this. Your husband should talk to his folks. He should not expect them to change, necessarily, but he should be completely honest about how this makes him feel.

Do not withhold your child during holidays. This is the essence of two “wrongs” not making a right. During your child’s life, you should slowly transition away from your own desires and toward your child’s. If the grandparents ignore or mistreat this child, you will necessarily limit contact, but your baby’s presence in this family might be the perfect antidote to this deficit of attention. Give them a chance and then make any decisions based on their behavior toward the child.

Dear Amy: I am a single mom. I’m in love with my best friend. He means more to me than anything, but the one thing he can’t give up is his freedom of being single. He loves me, but wants his cake and to eat it, too.

When I try to move on and date other people, he pulls me back into thinking that he wants to be with me.

I love him so much that I keep letting him play with my heart.

I am having a hard time trying to be “friends with benefits” because I have such strong feelings for him. His family loves me, his daughter loves me and my kids love him and his family.

We’ve been doing this for almost two years. I practically live there when my kids are not with me. I am afraid of letting him go. I’m afraid I won’t find someone like him. What should I do?

— Confused Heart

Dear Confused: When you start loving yourself as much as you claim to love this guy, you will find the strength to move on. Your stark choice is to either accept this relationship as it is, or to leave the relationship because it is not what you want. You’ve spent two years accepting a relationship that you claim is not good for you. You will never get those years back.

It might help if you imagined one of your children grown up and in a relationship like this. What would you tell them to do?

Dear Readers: My own life is probably a lot like yours. I’ve experienced poverty, prosperity, marriage, divorce, remarriage, step-parenting, caretaking, loss and grief. If you’ve ever been curious about the life behind the advice column, I hope you’ll consider picking up my memoir, “Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home.” (2017, Hachette).

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Denver Sheriff Department reorganizes its top ranks, includes the promotion of a former sheriff

A reorganization in the top ranks of the Denver Sheriff Department has stripped the sheriff of his budget staff and elevated a former sheriff who had fallen from grace after a colleague secretly recorded him criticizing his bosses.

Under the new organization, effective Jan. 1, Sheriff Patrick Firman’s budget staff will report to a deputy director in the city’s safety department. Firman’s chief of staff, an appointee from the mayor’s office, will gain more oversight, including beefing up the department’s public relations efforts.

Firman said the changes are part of the department’s ongoing efforts to improve the culture and are no more unusual than any business making leadership decisions. The department is preparing itself to move from reform mode to one of “continuous improvement,” he said.

But department critics see the changes as a sign that the sheriff’s department continues to struggle even after undergoing a massive reform effort over the past three years. Among the problems is an inability to get control of overtime spending in recent years — an issue that has cost the department millions.

“People are going to read into it what they want,” Firman said. “This is part of the process of evolving, changing the culture and getting better.”

The sheriff’s department has completed about 70 percent of the 418 recommendations made in 2015 by Hillard Heintze, a Chicago-based consulting company hired to evaluate the department, Firman said. He expects the department to have completed 90 percent by the end of December.

The department still faces challenges.

Violence among inmates continues to be a problem. And the department has struggled to overcome a staffing shortage despite a bigger budget to hire more deputies. In 2016, the department spent $14 million on overtime, and the department is on track to spend a similar amount in 2017.

Firman said the decision to move his budget staff to the safety department, which oversees his office, has nothing to do with the rampant overtime spending. It made sense to centralize those operations, he said.

However, the police and fire departments, which also are under the safety department, continue to have their own budget staffs. Holly Shrewsbury, a sheriff’s spokeswoman, said the concept will be tested by the sheriff’s department.

“I’m still managing the budget,” Firman said. “It’s still my budget. It’s a matter of centralizing resources.”

Firman, hired in October 2015, appointed new leaders three months after he was hired by Mayor Michael Hancock. Rather than have chiefs supervise the city’s two jails, which had been the tradition, he placed one chief over operations and another over administration. Majors were put in charge of the jails.

Elias Diggins, the interim sheriff for 15 months before Firman was hired, had been shifted to a role overseeing special projects, which included construction of a new women’s unit at the County Jail complex on Smith Road.

Now, Diggins will be chief of operations with majors Jodi Blair and Rick Guerrero reporting to him; Blair will run the Downtown Detention Center, while Guerrero runs the County Jail. Diggins also will be in charge of intake, records and scheduling.

It’s a return to the top levels of jail administration for Diggins, who was relieved of any duties involving inmate management or daily operations after Firman took office. The promotion will include a pay increase, Shrewsbury said.

Just weeks before Firman was hired, Diggins was embarrassed during a public disciplinary hearing for former Chief Frank Gale. Gale had secretly recorded Diggins talking about their bosses, who had fired Gale.

After the recording became public, Diggins issued an apology to Hancock and Stephanie O’Malley, the safety department’s executive director.

Diggins also was accused earlier this year in a lawsuit of trying to cover up evidence that a mentally ill inmate had been paraded naked through Denver Health Medical Center. That lawsuit is pending.

Firman declined to characterize Diggins’ promotion as a sign that he had regained the trust of his bosses.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of trust,” Firman said. “We’re looking at people’s talents, and Elias has a lot of talent and he has a lot to offer this department.”

The Fraternal Order of Police Denver Sheriff’s Lodge No. 27 was pleased with Diggins’ promotion, as were community members who had criticized the department for not having enough diversity within its leadership.

The rank-and-file deputies have lacked faith in the department’s leadership, and they hope Diggins is allowed to make decisions, said union president Mike Jackson.

“The city administration, the safety director and the independent monitor are making all of the decisions,” Jackson said. “No uniformed sheriff is making decisions.

“I have a feeling he will have more say in what’s going on.”

Jackson specifically pointed out the 2016 appointment of Andrea Albo by Hancock as the sheriff’s chief of staff as an example of City Hall running the department.

“These people have no experience or know how a law enforcement agency runs,” Jackson said. “I always assumed she was brought over to keep an eye on the sheriff. It’s almost another layer of bureaucracy.”

Terrence Hughes, president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, said the changes improve the diversity within the department’s leadership ranks, but they also are a sign that the city is still trying to improve the department’s image.

“When you look at the charts, it looks like they’ve covered all the diversity check marks,” Hughes said. “We’re watching them to see if they’re going to change. It’s more of a cultural problem than an organizational problem. Don’t just do it on paper. We want to see those changes in how you do business.”

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8.8 million Americans face big tax hike if Republicans scrap the medical deduction

Anne Hammer is one of millions of elderly Americans who could face a substantial tax hike in 2018 depending on the final negotiations over the Republican tax bill.

In her retirement community in Chestertown, Maryland, it’s the big topic of conversation.

Hammer is 71. Like many seniors, her medical bills are piling up. There are doctor visits, insurance premiums, drugs, a colonoscopy, a heart scan, an unexpected trip to the emergency room that lasted three days, ongoing monitoring for breast and ovarian cancer that run in her family and the costs of medical staff at her retirement community. Her out-of-pocket medical expenses vary, but she estimates they are around $20,000 a year.

Under current law, she can take a big medical deduction on her taxes. Last year, she was able to reduce her total taxable income by $16,000 because of the medical deduction alone, saving her over $3,000 on her tax bill.

The House tax bill would eliminate the deduction, while the Senate bill would keep it (and even make it a bit more generous). It’s a key difference that must be reconciled before final legislation goes to President Donald Trump.

“I have enough money to last until I’m 95,” says Hammer, who has carefully saved for decades. “But if I have to pay that much more in taxes, I might run out of money by 85.”

The medical deduction started in 1942 to help Americans deal with what lawmakers at the time called “extraordinary” costs of medical care, the kind that hit when someone in the family has cancer or needs round-the-clock care. Currently, anyone can deduct medical expenses that account for more than 10 percent of their adjusted gross income (income minus deductions and exemptions). The Senate bill would expand that to 7.5 percent of income for this year and next.

In 2015, 8.8 million Americans used the deduction. Over half were seniors above age 65, according to AARP.

As soon as Hammer, a former university administrator and MetLife compliance manager, read about the House plan, she realized it would alter not just her taxes, but possibly her life. She has income from Social Security, a modest pension and private retirement accounts. She pulls in about $55,000 a year, enough to pay for her retirement community and her medical bills.

But if she loses the medical deduction, her taxable income would jump – and so would her taxes. Her home state of Maryland bases its taxes off of the federal ones, so losing the medical deduction at the federal level would lead to more taxes at the state level as well. The more money that goes to taxes, the less she has to live on later in life.

“It’s very, very scary,” says Hammer. It would be even worse if her medical costs go up. She already anticipates eye surgery and a dental procedure next year.

Trump promised the middle class would be better off under his plan, but scrapping this deduction hits some in that group. Nearly 70 percent of the people claiming the deduction made $75,000 or less, according to AARP.

“This isn’t a high-income deduction,” says Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP, which has been running ad campaigns and urging Congress to keep the deduction.

Republican lawmakers in the House had previously argued their tax overhaul would be so beneficial to families that individual provisions like the medical deduction would no longer be necessary. But more recently, they have acknowledged the significant impact of eliminating this particular tax break.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the lead author of the House bill, said last week that the medical deduction is on his radar heading into the conference committee since many of his fellow GOP lawmakers have contacted him about it.

“That issue is being raised a lot by our lawmakers as very important,” Brady said.

Eliminating the medical deduction raises $10 billion a year — about 7 percent of the cost of reducing the tax rate for corporations from 35 percent to 20 percent, as the tax overhauls do.

Losing the deduction is especially burdensome for families caring for someone with a chronic disease. Cecilia “Sis” Tunnell is 88 and has Alzheimer’s. Her daughter Mary Pagel runs a thriving accounting practice in San Luis Obispo, California, and moved her mom to a nursing home nearby. The facility, specialized care and a nurse cost over $130,000 last year, a hefty sum the family can pay because of years of careful planning.

Pagel handles her mother’s taxes and estimates that Tunnell would go from paying less than $2,300 in taxes last year to paying over $50,000 if the House plan went into effect and the medical deduction went away, because her mother’s taxable income would jump by six figures.

Many other clients of Pagel’s have been calling her with similar concerns. It alters the math dramatically, even for families that have saved for years in order to fund top-notch care that doesn’t rely on the government.

“It freaks me out,” says Mary. “The costs of medical care are not going to go down, and you just don’t know how long someone will need care with Alzheimer’s or another chronic illness.”

While most of the focus been on the elderly, Americans of all ages would be affected if the tax deduction is lost.

Randy Sherfy was a former college athlete and a rising star at a law firm when he left his home early on a Saturday morning in 1992 to go on a bike ride with friends. A driver hit him a few miles from his home. He was 41 at the time.

Many surgeries later, Randy’s body was mostly repaired, but he never recovered from the brain injury. He has been living in a traumatic care facility in Texas ever since, which costs over $60,000 a year. He pays for it from income from a settlement with a driver and disability insurance he had from his law firm.

His brother, an accountant in Austin, Texas, estimates Randy’s taxes would go up substantially without the medical tax deduction. In most years from 2007 to 2014, Randy paid almost nothing in taxes because of the medical deduction, his brother says. Under the House bill, he would suddenly have taxable income of $60,000 a year.

About a quarter of people who claim the medical deduction are under age 50, according to AARP.

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