Tax Refunds In A Blink

March 07, 1995|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,Sun Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS -- It took centuries for man to rocket to the moon. It took decades for the Cold War to end. It took the state comptroller less than a year to reach an equally unheard of summit -- processing speedy tax refunds without computer glitches.

A year ago, the state introduced a high-tech scanning system to speed up the process. Instead, it delayed about 400,000 refunds. This year, the comptroller's office has worked out the kinks, and so far, the machines have yet to trip up.

"Everyone knows what happens when you change systems -- there are glitches. We went from 1967 technology to 1994 technology, which is a quantum leap," said Assistant State Comptroller Marvin A. Bond. "Things are going so much more smoothly this year that it does seems to be a vindication of the comptroller's vision to start this technology."

What that means is, the tax refund cometh faster than ever.

Yesterday, the comptroller processed its 500,000th state income tax refund check -- about a month earlier than it has in previous years. To date, that amounts to $212 million processed, refunded and dropped in the mail in the span of 10 days to two weeks -- an average savings of up to two weeks time. The agency expects to refund a total of $660 million to 1.7 million of Maryland's 2.3 million taxpayers.

A word of caution: "We will have delays as the volume grows," Mr. Bond said.

Even so, other number crunchers are showing interest in the new technology. Among the visitors: the Internal Revenue Service and representatives of Brazil, South Korea, Australia and about 41 states.

"We're the only place in the world, to our knowledge . . . actually jTC using this technology to process our tax returns," Mr. Bond said.

Under the now-defunct system, delays were more common as workers manually stamped and entered most data, shuffled mounds of paperwork on carts and stored records on the fourth floor of the Revenue Administration Center.

All of that will become obsolete, and by next year, the entire fourth floor -- the size of about two football fields -- will be freed up. With the new system, the state projects a $16.4 million saving over 10 years. The cause of this minor revolution is contained in a contraption that looks like a copy machine, acts like a copy machine. IBM put up about $5 million to develop the scanning technology for the state. Otherwise known as intelligent character recognition, the system reads handwriting and stores it in a computer.

"It's faster," said Janet L. Eisler, a 20-year-old part-time worker who stuffs paper through a scanner eight hours a day. "There's sort of a rhythm you get into."

The state, which chipped in $1 million for the scanners, processes the information using software contracted from New York-based Anderson Consulting.


Free tax help is available on Saturday, March 18, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The Maryland Association of CPAs will answer questions at libraries throughout the state. For more information, call the association at 410-296-6250, or 800-782-2036.

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