Electronic income-tax collection benefits state and 0...

SATURDAY MAIL BOX

March 22, 1997

Electronic income-tax collection benefits state and 0) taxpayers

It's been said that taxation is the art of plucking a goose to get the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of

squawking. But today tax collectors across America face an added challenge: Keeping enough employees in the face of relentless government downsizing to get the job done while using technology to maintain and expand services and provide them more efficiently.

High-tech methods to process tax returns, track accounts, generate refunds and send bills are staples in the arsenal of most revenue agencies. Maryland led the way with its pioneering tax return imaging system and consolidated revenue administration computer system.

But what about services that impact taxpayers directly -- services they need and use -- such as getting a tax form or having a tax question answered? If you build a high-tech taxpayer service system, will taxpayers use it? Will people accustomed to face-to-face service squawk about high-tech solutions to the problem of doing more with less?

Across the nation, state revenue agencies are offering taxpayers a wide variety of high-tech ways to deal with their tax-filing obligation, including interactive telephone systems, fax-on-demand, the Internet and electronic filing.

In this state, taxpayers have taken to the new options like tourists take to Maryland crab cakes. Taxpayers downloaded 20,000 tax forms and booklets from our website through the first 10 weeks of the income tax filing season, a pace that's bound to pick up as April 15 draws closer.

After they get the forms, they're using e-mail to ask questions, with half of the tax correspondence coming over the information highway. And we're the first state in the nation to let taxpayers use the Internet to apply for an extension of time to file a return.

In the same period, our interactive 24-hours-a-day Forms-by-Fax system sent 50,000 pages of forms and publications to more than 8,000 callers.

With less than a month to go in the income tax filing season, more Maryland returns have been filed electronically through professional tax preparers than were filed electronically all of last year. Almost 15 percent of all returns are currently being electronically filed, up 31 percent over the same period last year.

The results? Less costly paper processing, lower postage costs and better service to those taxpayers who still need to talk directly to our taxpayer service personnel.

Have taxpayers taken advantage of technology? The answer is a resounding ''yes."

Thanks to technology, we're processing a million more tax returns than we did 20 years ago, and with fewer employees. We've reduced our payroll by 217 employees since 1991. The 3.5 million pieces of paper we have eliminated from our work-flow through technology would stretch more than 600 miles, laid end to end, or from Baltimore almost to Chicago.

Cutting back on paper, cutting back on staff, increasing service with an electronic office that never closes. You can't squawk about that.

Louis L. Goldstein

Annapolis

;/ The writer is Maryland's state comptroller.

Railway plan includes tracks for clear shot west

The March 10 editorial, ''Keeping Maryland on track,'' misses the mark concerning the Maryland Midland Railway Inc. bid.

The Maryland Midland plan to link Baltimore and Hagerstown is not a substitute for a second Class I railroad connection to the Port of Baltimore.

Maryland Midland endorses service to the Port of Baltimore by two Class I railroads. The key question Maryland leaders need to ask is whether Baltimore will ever again enjoy real competitive rail freight service. Carving up the Baltimore rail lines between the two Virginia-based Class I railroads does not bring any freight back from the Port of Norfolk or new business to Baltimore.

As the dividing up of Conrail unfolds, Norfolk Southern will probably acquire all Conrail lines and trackage rights in Maryland except the Southern Maryland line.

Those Conrail lines acquired by Norfolk Southern all run north-south; Norfolk Southern will not have a route from Baltimore directly west to America's industrial heartland. That is precisely why we offered the Maryland Midland plan, which includes use of our track by Norfolk Southern from Hagerstown.

With our acquisition of the Gladhill, Pa.-Hagerstown-Emory Grove-Baltimore rail segments from CSX (those 42 miles you mention) Norfolk Southern, using its own equipment, and its own personnel if it chooses, will have direct access to Baltimore over the former main line of the Western Maryland Railway.

At the same time, Maryland gets a bonus, as Maryland Midland will be able to serve and expand the business of our customers located between Baltimore and Hagerstown.

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