AUGUSTA — In one quiet room Tuesday, a dozen workers slid paper income tax returns out of their envelopes, smoothed, then stacked them to be whisked off to a scanning room. They’ll do it 60,000 times this week.

It’s a high-tech process involving bar codes and electronics that count each time a worker grabs a new piece of mail — and it’s oddly low-tech at the same time, using beaten-up paper box lids held together by silver duct tape to ferry returns around.

“It’s a very Maine thing,” Dennis Doiron said.

On Tax Day eve, Maine Revenue Services opened its doors for a behind-the-scenes-look at the life of a tax return.

It’s efficient. Hyper-organized. And, for paper returns, going the way of the dinosaur.

But it’s a well-wrangled dinosaur.

“I’m always surprised at how smooth the tax season runs,” Doiron, director of MRS’ income and estate tax division, said.

Life starts at the post office.

The very early sorting work is done by you, the tax filer: MRS has eight different post office boxes to receive returns. You mail to one if you’re an individual filer and the state owes you; mail to another if you owe the state, and so on. Mail comes in three times a day. 

“Ten years ago, we received 600,000 paper returns. We used to finish processing by the end of June,” Susan Smith, deputy director of revenue processing and the quality assurance division, said. “Now we’re caught up two weeks after the filing season.”

By early this week, the state had received 508,214 income tax returns for the season, only 65,455 of them — 13 percent — on paper.

“We used to have at least 50 people a day opening mail; now we’re down to 14 people,” she said.

Mail is organized by date into bins and then fed through a machine they call the “slicer” to cut each envelope open lengthwise, at lightning speed.

Then, it’s off to the All Size Extraction Desk room for returns to be plucked out and smoothed. At each station sits a deceptively high-tech, nondescript inbox. Workers break a beam of light that triggers a count each time they reach for an envelope. At the end of the day, as one of many security measures, the number of envelopes sliced has to equal the number opened.

From there, it’s off to the imaging room where a machine scans 5,000 pages an hour. As the physical paper waits to be shredded, the actual return enters the system to be treated much like an electronically-filed one.

Every night, computers generate a list of people owed refunds. It’s reviewed and sent off to the State Treasurer.

“We correct a lot of returns,” Doiron said. “Sometimes corrections go in favor of the taxpayer; it cuts both ways.”

Elsewhere in the office, located in a complex near the Department of Public Safety, 30 workers answer calls. There were 1,000 on Monday alone; 80,000 over the tax season.

Despite some beefs with the wait time calling the Internal Revenue Service, most calls here reach a live person in about 40 seconds, Doiron said.

“(On Monday) only a handful of the people hung up on us,” he said.

At the front of the building, there’s also the MRS’s only walk-up service center where people can ask for help and hand in returns in person.

Usually, 40 to 50 people a day come in.

“Tomorrow’s the big one — we might get 200 tomorrow,” said tax examiner Steve Hudson, who answers phones when he’s not at one of the three service windows. “By and large, people are reasonable. In eight years, I’ve only had to put the phone down on one person. Face to face, people tend to calm down a bit.”

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This story was updated at 9:12 a.m. to reflect that refund lists are sent to the State Treasurer.

Maine income taxes, by the numbers

Tax booklets printed, 2013: 112,500

Tax booklets printed, 2014 (through 4/14): 65,000

Individual income tax returns filed, 2013: 685,693

Of those, number filed on paper: 141,134

Individual income tax returns filed, 2014 (through 4/14): 508,214

Of those, number filed on paper: 65,455

Refunds issued so far this year: 325,530

Average refund amount: $571

Wondering about your refund? Wait at least four days after filing and check at www.maine.gov/revenue and click on “Where’s My Refund?”

SOURCE: Maine Revenue Services


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