Amnesty program resonates with tax repentant

For some, state plan 'ill-conceived joke'

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HARRISBURG -- All things considered, the rollout of a complicated new program giving amnesty to people who are overdue on their taxes has gone pretty well, state officials contend.

The state Revenue Department said Friday that more than $12 million in back taxes was taken in from 10,000 taxpayers in the first five days of the program, with the largest single payment received so far topping $172,000.

The tax amnesty program, which began Monday and runs through June 18, is aimed at helping balance the current state budget by generating up to $190 million in unpaid taxes.

But don't try talking about the program's success with some unhappy Pittsburgh residents, who say they've been pressured to "pay up" on taxes that may not actually be owed, or who have had a hard time getting answers from revenue officials on the phone.

Downtown businessman David Sladack denounced it as "a joke" that is "ill-conceived" and "an embarrassment to the great commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

He e-mailed his complaints to the Post-Gazette after getting a notice from the state offering amnesty "for an unidentified delinquent tax."

He said he tried to get information about this delinquency from a state phone number, only to have his call "go straight to a recorded message and then disconnect." So he applied online to the program and was told "my records showed no delinquent liability."

Three days later, he got a letter from a law firm retained by the state to make collections and was told he owed $0.01.

"Yes, one penny and still no explanation as to the source" of the supposed delinquency, he said. He also criticized the state's television ad campaign for the program, calling it "half-baked," and urged anyone who was being unfairly accused of owing tax to contact state legislators.

The program waives most penalties and half of the interest on overdue taxes. One million notices about back taxes were mailed out last week. Gov. Ed Rendell, who instituted the collection program after initially having doubts about it, said it's the first time since 1996 that such amnesty has been offered.

Revenue Department officials said they're aware of complaints by some people about long waits on phone lines by some callers just after the program began Monday, but contend such problems are being ironed out.

"Because of the tremendous response in the first couple days of the tax amnesty program," said Revenue Secretary C. Daniel Hassell, "the department has tripled the number of people answering the phones, and we are offering customer service for the next two Saturdays."

As of noon Friday, the amnesty website, www.PATaxPayUp.com, had 86,000 hits; a hot line, 1-877-34-PAYUP, had more than 15,000 calls.

But Mr. Sladack wasn't the only one with complaints. Aspinwall resident Stephen Paff said the state has shown "ineptitude" with the program. He said his wife got a letter "accusing her of being a 'known tax evader' " and offering amnesty if she paid up by June 1.

He said he and his wife "conscientiously pay our taxes every year [and] have never been late." He said the state gave a number to call if she had questions but there was no one there to answer the phone.

The state listed the name of her business but had other data, such as her tax ID number, wrong. He said the state made a "baseless accusation" that was "coupled with a vague threat of recriminations."

Also unhappy were Erin Loucks of Greenfield and Kelli McElhinny of Lawrenceville.

"I've paid my taxes on time and in full for the seven years I've resided in Pennsylvania," Ms. Loucks said. "I've tried to find out what my supposed delinquency is, but the tax amnesty website shows me a page of nothing. I've tried to call and speak to a human who can explain this to me, and I get a pre-recorded message that says all agents are busy."

Ms. McElhinny said she, too, had trouble getting through on the first day or two, but things had improved by yesterday.

"Even so, they should have ensured that the communications channels were fully functional before they mailed the letters" about delinquency, she said.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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