Friday, July 18, 2008

Taxing experience

If you know me well, you know two things: I keep meticulous records and I pay my taxes.

The recordkeeping thing is equal parts nurture and nature. I was raised to be orderly, and I have a penchant for knowing exactly where I stand.

I pay my taxes, without exception or evasion, because I reap the benefits of this society and taxation is part of the price I pay for those benefits. Both the process and the cost can be burdensome, but I view it as a civil obligation. Should I oppose a tax, I have the right and the duty to express my opposition at the ballot box, in public forums and by other means.

A month ago, I got a letter from my state's department of taxation, informing me that I hadn't filed my 2006 income-tax return for the school district in which I live. Knowing that the notice was in error -- and after uttering more than a few dammits -- I gathered, copied and mailed my 2006 return and every shred of supporting documentation.

Problem solved -- or so I thought.

On Wednesday of this week, I received yet another letter from the tax department, along with a bill for unpaid 2006 taxes, penalties, fees and interest -- a total of $700, almost twice my obligation for the year. That evening, a few more dammits later, I dashed off a calm-but-quizzical e-mail to the department -- essentially,
"I filed and paid my 2006 taxes two months before they were due and complied with your request last month. I don't understand why you're billing me."
To my surprise, an e-mail response awaited me the next morning. Seems the tax authority's automated system still couldn't find evidence of either my return or, more important, my withholding statement. Mid-morning today, after two more e-mails and a fax, I got this message:
"We have cleared your bill. Your 2006 records show paid."

You'll notice that I'm not engaging in some rambling, vitriolic indictment of an incompetent bureaucracy -- in fact, the one bureaucrat I dealt with resolved the matter quickly and professionally. Automation, usually our friend, was the culprit in this case.

It took two humans -- one who accepts his responsibilities as a taxpayer and one who's competent in their role with the tax authority -- to clear this computer-generated error in less than 36 hours. Having the right attitude didn't hurt, either.

(Dammits notwithstanding.)

One thing, however, still has me scratching my head. When that helpful bureaucrat supplied me with a fax number, I discovered that The Great State of Ohio apparently has "outsourced" some of its operations -- not offshore, I'm glad to say, but to the State of Washington.

No offense, Washingtonians, but I have a problem with that.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Ohio's unemployment rate is 5.6% -- 9th-highest in the U.S. and a tick above the national rate of 5.5%. Washington's unemployment rate is 4.7%, lower than 21 other states.

I believe I'll drop a line to the Ohio Department of Taxation -- a note of thanks, of course, but also to encourage the department to keep its business close to home, where it belongs.