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January 16

A Cumberland taxpayer said he recently received this $15,000 tax bill in error from the state.

Maine tax officials take heat for erroneous collections letters

By Steve Mistler
smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Members of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee slammed state tax officials Wednesday for sending 1,000 erroneous collection notices to Mainers this month.

Several lawmakers sharply criticized Jerome Gerard, executive director of Maine Revenue Services, for allowing the mailing of the notices, which demanded that those residents pay thousands of dollars in outstanding taxes, penalties and interest by Jan. 17 or have their wages garnished and their property seized.

Maine Revenue Services said this week that the letters were mailed inadvertently after being printed in a test of a new computer system. State officials have identified the taxpayers who were sent the false notices.

Several lawmakers also chided the agency at a briefing Wednesday for what they described as a weak apology letter that MRS drafted for taxpayers who got the notices.

“It seems to me that we have given you extraordinary power,” said Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley. “With extraordinary power comes extraordinary responsibility.

“I think this letter needs to be much stronger,” Thomas said.

Rep. Matthew Moonen, D-Portland, agreed, saying the letter didn’t fully acknowledge the scare that the agency created.

Gerard said his agency will draft a stronger apology letter.

Two taxpayers provided the Portland Press Herald with copies of the notices they received, which said, “These debts are final ... payment of these amounts is long overdue.”

The draft apology letter presented to the Taxation Committee said, “You may have recently received a notice in error from Maine Revenue Services. If so, we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.”

The letter then described how the error occurred and told recipients that their bank accounts had not been affected.

In addition to calling for a stronger apology, Moonen said he is concerned about whether Maine Revenue Services could prevent another mailing of erroneous tax collection notices. Gerard told him that it would not happen again.

The error occurred as the agency tested a new software system. Gerard said that when the software was installed, the system ran a printing test. During the test, 3,500 collection notices were printed on pink paper and later shredded. Another batch, about 1,000 notices printed on white paper, was mailed to residents.

According to two taxpayers who got the letters, the only clues that they might have been sent in error were the names on the address labels, which included incorrect middle initials or last names. State officials said some letters contained accurate information.

Gerard said MRS had received nearly 100 phone calls from residents who got the notices.

David Heidrich, a spokesman for the agency, told the Press Herald on Monday that anyone who made a payment in response to an incorrect notice will get a refund from the state within one to two weeks. Gerard did not say Wednesday whether any payments had been made.

Any resident who made a payment and wants to speed up their refund can call 626-8475.

The test letters never entered the state’s accounting system, so residents won’t get second notices if they ignore the incorrect ones, Heidrich said.

Sawin Millett, the state’s finance commissioner, took responsibility for the error. MRS is an agency within the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which Millett oversees.

Rep. Paul Bennett, R-Kennebunk, said the incident may have been a one-time error, but it was a costly one.

“If one of these notices had been sent to a business, it could have destroyed them,” he said.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler





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