State learns that its taxpayers have trouble rounding numbers

February 05, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

The early returns are in, and Maryland taxpayers are not

looking very smart.

For the first time, the state comptroller's office has instructed taxpayers to round off all monetary entries to whole dollar amounts rather than list every income figure or deduction to the last precise cent.

However, based on a sampling, taxpayers failed to follow that instruction on about 25 percent of the 133,000 state income tax returns filed by yesterday, said comptroller's office spokesman Marvin Bond.

With another 2 million returns awaited, Mr. Bond said, "we're trying to nip it in the bud."

The change to rounding off dollar amounts was necessary for returns to be accurately read by new, computerized scanners. The equipment is expected to save the state millions of dollars in salaries for the hundreds of temporary workers formerly needed to manually keyboard the numbers into the computer system.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bond said, the equipment won't work properly if Marylanders do not follow directions to round off figures -- to the next highest dollar amount when they are 50 cents or more, or to the next lowest dollar amount when they are 49 cents or less. Mr. Bond said the machines "are actually reading the numbers, the handwriting," but can get confused by such things as dollar and cent signs, commas and decimal points -- all of which are unnecessary when using rounded, whole-dollar amounts.

"Where we're coming into problems is people are not rounding," Mr. Bond said. "This means that we lose some of the efficiency of the scanning process because you have to key manually once they are not rounded, and when we key them, we're rounding them anyway. It's something the taxpayer can do that makes it easier on themselves, cuts down math mistakes and will speed their refund checks."

He said it is important that numbers be "as separate and distinct as possible," and "you go back to your elementary school math -- if it's 50 cents or more, you go up, and 49 cents or less you go down."

Mr. Bond said the state is spending less than $1 million for the scanning hardware, while IMB has put up $3.5 million or more to develop the program in hopes of marketing it to others.

For those who want help with returns, state income tax offices will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. the next two Saturdays, in addition to the regular weekday hours. The 19 locations are listed in the state tax booklet.

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