Kansas wants taxes filed electronically

Paul Miller has been doing his taxes and filing paper returns for 70 years.

For nearly 60 years, he's had a side business doing others' returns, although he's cut back to about a half-dozen clients this year. For all of them, it's been paper returns.

"I'm just not as computer savvy as a lot of people are," the 92-year-old Wichitan said. "I like to see what I'm doing. Put it down on paper, then come back the next day to see what I've done.

"On the computer screen, I'm never quite sure."

That approach flies in the face of what the Kansas Department of Revenue wants from taxpayers.

Citing budget cuts and the cost of processing paper returns, the agency mailed out only 144,000 tax return booklets this year. No booklets were sent to large distribution centers, such as post offices and libraries, as they had been in the past.

Taxpayers can still call the department at 785-296-4937 and request forms, but they shouldn't expect to meet the April 15 deadline — it takes about three weeks to process the request.

The state expects to save $560,000 this year by handling fewer paper returns. A paper return costs five times as much to process as one filed electronically, revenue department spokeswoman Freda Warfield said.

The state's push for electronic filing is in full force.

Speed is emphasized. A taxpayer who has filed electronically can expect to have a direct-deposited refund in five to seven days. Paper processing takes one to two months, Warfield said.

New challenges

With the filing deadline less than two weeks away, taxpayers are getting the message — one way or another.

Through Tuesday, 81 percent of the more than 1 million returns received by the state had been filed electronically, according to agency figures. That represents a 15 percent increase from a year ago at this time.

Use of Kansas Web File, the department's online site that allows taxpayers to file state returns electronically at no charge, has increased 69 percent over a year ago. Nearly 97,000 had used it by Tuesday.

"We're ahead in issuing refunds, we're ahead on receiving returns," Warfield said. "This year is going great so far."

Not for Dee Williams, administrator of the Derby Senior Center. Through the American Association of Retired Persons, the center uses volunteers to do tax returns at no charge to senior citizens with low to moderate incomes.

But the lack of availability of state forms has driven more taxpayers to seek help. And some of them don't walk in the doors smiling.

"I can't believe the state did that," Williams said. "Not everybody has a computer.

"It's been real frustrating for us. We're just the messenger, and people get a little crazy when they can't get those forms."

Like most organizations that provide free help in filing returns, the Derby Senior Center's capacity is limited by the number of volunteers it has available.

Williams said the center won't do any more returns than normal — about 250 by the time the deadline rolls around April 15.

"But we've had to turn down more than in the past," she said. "I can't begin to tell you how many."

Pat Cameron, director of Kansas Benefit Bank, a program at Inter-Faith Ministries that offers tax-filing assistance as part of its services, said the lack of paper forms is "really bad public policy."

"A lot of the people we see don't have the equipment or the knowledge (to file electronically)," Cameron said, "so they're in bad shape."

George Dinkel, director of Center of Hope, which had done about 500 returns for low-income taxpayers by midweek, said, "We have people coming into our office who can't get the state forms. They can't afford to go to H&R Block and pay $100, $300. It's really a burden for some people."

Libraries have been a fixed site for finding tax forms. This year only federal forms are available there, including Wichita's downtown library.

"Every day people are asking about state forms," said Jennifer Heinicke, Wichita's special projects librarian.

Target audience

The 144,000 booklets that the state mailed went to taxpayers who filed last year by using a K-40 form supplied by the Kansas Department of Revenue, Warfield said.

Those who filed by mailing forms provided by a tax service didn't get a booklet in the mail this year, she said.

Taxpayers can use a variety of online tax preparation means, such as Turbo Tax or TaxWorks, to file a federal return for free or at a reduced rate. But those companies don't have an arrangement with states and usually charge $9 to $12 to send in a state return.

"A lot of times people say, 'I'm not going to pay to file my taxes,' " Warfield said, "so they print it out and mail it in."

In fact, the Kansas Department of Revenue shows 349,000 returns filed last year using some vendor's form.

"That's the group we're targeting to file electronically," Warfield said.

To further encourage electronic filing, the revenue department asked the Legislature in January if it could charge paper filers a $25 fee. Legislators quickly killed the idea.

Warfield said the 144,000 who did receive a booklet and forms in the mail are largely those who qualify for a food sales tax refund. Many senior citizens — the group that has the most difficulty filing electronically — get a food sales tax refund, she said.

"We realize many of those 144,000 don't have a computer or are scared of using a computer," she said.

Warfield said many of the complaints she's heard have been from people who just wanted a copy for their records.

She said taxpayers can print out a copy of their returns from the Kansas Web File site.

Also to save money, the booklets printed have only eight pages. At one time they had almost 40, Warfield said.

"We didn't print all the instructions," she said, "but we did print instructions for the food sales tax refund."

Miller and his handful of clients were among the 144,000 to receive a state booklet in the mail.

But with slim instructions, he said he pulled out his 2008 booklet for help.

"They're certainly trying to discourage people from going paper," said Miller, who also worked as an engineer and teacher.

Miller isn't so much angry about the changes as he is determined to keep filing paper returns.

"The computer is fine, and I think it's a great invention," he said. "It certainly saves those people (at the State Revenue Department) time.

"If I live long enough, I'll have to convert to doing it electronically whether I like it or not. I may have to get someone to do my taxes."