Tax procrastinators get more time for help

Assistance: Maryland adds to the hours in which tax filers can call or walk in with their questions.

April 07, 1999|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

As the final eight days of the tax filing season approach, Maryland officials said yesterday that they are expanding assistance to tax procrastinators scrambling to meet the April 15 deadline.

To help anxious taxpayers, the revenue administration division of the state Comptroller's Office said it will extend hours for its telephone assistance lines and its 20 taxpayer service offices, and offer free help Saturday.

"Some people are natural-born procrastinators and they wait until the 11th hour," said James M. Arnie, revenue administration director. "Opportunities for free tax assistance still remain."

About 2.3 million state returns are expected this year, 75 percent of which are due refunds. As of yesterday, 1.4 million returns had been received, Arnie said.

The state is encouraging taxpayers to file electronically, so those who are in immediate need of their refund won't get caught in the last-minute crunch.

If electronic filers opt for direct deposit, they will receive their refund in about 48 hours. Paper filers who wait until April 15 to file will not receive a refund until June, Arnie said.

The delay was attributed to a labor-intensive process paper returns must go through at the Revenue Administration Center in Annapolis.

In the first stage of processing, tax return envelopes are sorted by hand according to which block is checked on the front of the brown envelope signaling a refund is due or a check is included.

Yesterday, 28,000 envelopes were sorted. On April 16, 30 employees will stand alongside long wooden tables to sort about 500,000 returns during an eight-hour shift.

The envelopes then go through a mail-opening machine that slits the tops off, and more workers sort through the returns and use a machine to staple all attachments.

"Once you start doing it, it's pretty automatic," said Peggy Holland, who has opened envelopes and handled returns for three years. Typically, she sorts about 1,100 returns a day.

Holland, 68, said the job is enjoyable, but it has its hazards -- such as dreaded paper cuts. "Sometimes," Holland added, "I make the mistake of stapling my fingers."

After the mail is opened, employees review handwritten returns to make sure all the necessary fields are completely filled out. If some information has been omitted, the return is set aside and reviewed separately.

In the image-processing area, all returns are hand-fed into scanners that digitize the information. The computerized data also allow for quick retrieval when a taxpayer calls with questions and for indefinite storage.

In the data-verification step, employees review the data that have been scanned to make sure the computer captured it correctly.

For example, the computer may not be able to read all of a handwritten return. The operator then corrects the computer version.

The computer then calculates the information given on the return and a refund check is issued. An employee further reviews the return only if the computer shows an error.

In the check insertion area, refund checks are printed -- 8,000 an hour -- and mailed out.

Pub Date: 4/07/99

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