A picky new District government computer system is rejecting tax forms that have been improperly filled out, and as many as 2,000 business owners are still waiting for their 1986 tax returns to be processed manually.
"We have instituted a new system, and it is indeed a picky system," said Joseph Lund, associate director of the D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue. "It means the taxpayers really have to fill out their forms accurately, virtually perfectly."
Lund said the problem is a minor one and that only 2,000 of the 60,000 business tax returns normally handled by the agency have been kicked out by the computer. He said the errors in filling out the forms are probably happening because the city issued new, slightly different forms to businesses this year.
The District, using the new system for the first time this year instead of processing business forms manually, has already made more than $8 million in franchise tax refunds compared to about $7.3 million last year, according to Lund. He said very few actual refunds remain to be issued because most businesses pay estimated taxes and reapply their refunds to next year's tax bill.
But Curtis Bell of the Bell Brothers property management firm is expecting one of those refunds and is frustrated that it has taken him more than seven months to receive it.
Bell said he filed his accountant-prepared tax return April 15 and had gotten the runaround from District officials as he tried several times to press them about a $3,972 refund.
"We've been filing tax forms in the District for 32 years, and we normally get our refunds in about 60 days," said Bell. "Even if the return wasn't perfect, it shouldn't take this long to process."
Bell said he started calling the agency in July and was told it was still processing 300,000 private returns, which take priority over business returns. He got the same answer in August and September, he said. In the meantime, he filed another form that allows him to receive 6 percent interest on his pending refund.
It was only recently, Bell said, that someone at the tax agency told him his return might have been rejected by the computer.
"But the woman told me there would be no way to find my tax return," he said. "She told me I could file another form, but that it could take six to eight weeks to process it and that maybe before then I would get the refund anyway. I got the impression that maybe I'd get it sooner if I left it alone."
Lund said that Bell's is the only complaint he has heard about and that his office is trying to arrange for his refund.
"I hate to say it, but maybe he should have been more persistent and gotten to someone higher up, because we certainly would have helped him," Lund said.
Bell said he did try someone higher up: Mayor Marion Barry. He said he called the mayor's office for help and was told to call the director of the tax agency, who Bell said did not answer the telephone number he was given. No one answered the phone at that number when a reporter called it yesterday.
"It's very frustrating dealing with the District," Bell said.
Lund said the new tax processing system "is to make it faster, and it is faster -- except for those that are kicked out." He said tax officials plan to reprogram the computer. "We might have asked it to be too picky."