Originally created 07/31/98

Revenue office having problems



ATLANTA -- Willie and Jimmie Roberts of Savannah mailed in their income tax forms in March, expecting $515 back from the state.

Powerful state Sen. George Hooks of Americus owed money, and sent in his check the next month.

While the Georgia Department of Revenue announced this week it met its July 15 deadline for sending out refund checks, the Roberts say they are still waiting for their money.

And Mr. Hooks' payment was cashed only a few weeks ago.

Now key lawmakers are wondering if the new-and-improved Department of Revenue is having problems, again.

"We've got to be losing millions of dollars in interest," said House Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry.

Members of the Budgetary Responsibility Oversight Committee this week asked state officials to look into why it's taking so long to handle checks.

Department officials say the only refunds not yet made are on returns that contained errors -- such as the lack of a signature -- or were missing documents.

DOR spokesman Reg Lansberry said it's "probably not" unusual for the checks of people who owe money to take a while to be deposited.

Besides refunds, "The priority is getting that sales tax money into the bank," he said. "We make our best efforts. It's not like all we're doing is opening income tax payments."

The collection of sales taxes is a sensitive issue for the department because the General Assembly this year had to approve a $50 million payment of backlogged receipts that were not property distributed to cities, counties and schools in 1997.

The department acknowledged that it had a sales tax backlog because it couldn't interpret many of the tax returns that were used to determine how much each government gets.

The snafu was tied to new forms the department began using last year and complications added when more than 100 local systems began assessing new sales taxes for school construction.

Problems with sales tax distributions go back at least three years. Former Revenue Commissioner Marcus Collins admitted his department used "educated guesses" to divvy up sales taxes during a 14-month period spanning 1995 and 1996.

State lawmakers committed millions of dollars this year to modernize the department's management and computer systems.

Mr. Lansberry said the department has 180,000 "dealers," such as stores and restaurants, that collect sales taxes and must remit them to the state for distribution.

Income tax refunds get priority with the department because Georgia law requires the state to pay up to 9 percent interest for late checks.

About 1 million tax returns are filed in Georgia the last two weeks before the April 15 deadline. Roughly two out of three of them expect refunds.

Preparers noted the state was quicker sending refunds for electronic filing than the federal Internal Revenue Service, but slower processing written returns.

Mrs. Roberts said her family filed its return at the end of March, and has received a refund check from the federal government.

"We have never in our entire life had this problem before," she said.

During a legislative committee meeting this week, three top lawmakers told stories of the state taking months to cash checks sent in to pay income taxes.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said a local lawyer told him the department just recently cashed his $40,000 income tax check.

"If they're doing that and it's widespread, that's ridiculous," said Mr. Hooks, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which helps write the state budget.

Taxpayers who still haven't received state refunds they expect can call with their Social Security number to learn their status. To talk to a DOR official, call (404) 657-9072, (404) 657-9074, or (404) 657-9076. For automated service, call (404) 656-6286.