High-tech Tax Gear Stumbles On Commas

March 21, 1994|By Joel Obermayer | Joel Obermayer,Sun Staff Writer

If you're wondering where your state tax refund is, you're not alone.

A new high-tech system to enable the state to process 2.2 million tax returns efficiently and speed up refunds is doing just the opposite.

In past years, taxpayers often received their refunds in two to three weeks, but this year it is taking closer to four to six weeks, state officials estimate.

The new system, which scans each return using handwriting-recognition technology, has trouble getting past commas and decimal points, so workers have had to check each entry.

"It takes a while to learn a new technique," said state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. "When you're used to a four-cylinder car, and you buy an eight-cylinder car, you have to get used to driving it."

The office has trimmed the backlog of returns and is now processing those received this month.

In the end, Mr. Goldstein says, the new system will speed up the handling of returns and save money by eliminating more than 200 workers who are hired annually to help during the tax season.

"Imaging dramatically improves service. With this system, someone can call from Hagerstown, and in 18 to 20 seconds we can plug into our mainframe and pull up a copy of their return on screen," Mr. Goldstein said. "And it eliminates the need to handle tax files manually. That process is very labor-intensive."

He estimates that the system will save the state $16.4 million over the next 10 years.

But the system is moving slowly. The main tax crunch at April 15 is less than a month away, and there are still plenty of kinks to be worked out. For example, taxpayers forget to round numbers in their returns to the nearest dollar, and the computer often mistakes the decimal points for numbers.

Marvin A. Bond, assistant state comptroller, said that when the system was first tested last fall, engineers found that it also had trouble dealing with commas.

"If a comma is clean, it's OK, but if the comma is connected to a seven, the scanner may read it as a six," Mr. Bond said.

The problem was that this year's tax forms had already been printed, and they included commas in all their work-sheet examples. Confused taxpayers, and even professional tax preparers, have been filing returns with commas in them.

The system was largely financed with private funds. In 1992, IBM Corp. donated more than $4.5 million in software and technical expertise to the project in return for using it as a showcase to sell the system to other states, countries and the IRS, Mr. Bond said.

Maryland has spent $1 million for scanning hardware and has assigned two full-time and eight part-time employees to the project, he said.

The system works by scanning a complete image of each return and storing it in a computer. The computer automatically checks for errors in the return and asks questions about areas it does not understand.

"The advantage is that several people can look at a return at once. The computer automatically codes the return, and we don't have to go upstairs looking for the files all the time," Mr. Bond said.

The comptroller's office stores more than 8 million old tax returns an attic repository. The new system eventually will enable the same files to be stored on a score of small data cartridges.

Until then, Mr. Bond said, the new system will require a few compromises.

"It's a learning curve for everyone," he said. "This is a tax form, not a test. People won't be penalized. We'll catch the errors, it just takes longer."

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