Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tax Collectors and Sinners

I used to think that when the bible refers to "tax collectors and sinners" it implied they were different, but after recent dealings with the incomprehensible bureauractic nightmare called the South African Revenue Service, I have to conclude that the term refers entirely to the people who work there. They aren't the only government department where thinking about what one is doing or saying is not required, but their actions (or lack of them) have the biggest impact on me.
Take for example my current tax nightmare. In 2006 I applied for a tax amnesty, which covers the years up to 2006. This was lucky for me, since I hadn't submitted returns for 2002-2005, due to overwork and general disorganisation on my part. So the amnesty made it unneccesary to file the returns, which saved me a lot of paperwork and headache.
Six months after the 2006 tax return and amnesty was filed, SARS decided to estimate my 2002-2005 returns anyway. Huh? BTW, they got the figures wrong, but that hasn't stopped them demanding payment of these estimates, even though they are covered by the amnesty. Plus interest, of course.
And the amnesty section hasn't finalised the amnesty application yet, so until they do, the other amounts are still payable. And they have said they won't waive the "capital" amount, only the interest before 2006. There wasn't any. Confused?
In January I got a phone call from the "collections" department wanting to know why I hadn't paid the R250,000 they had sent the summons for. (FWIW, that figure represents pretty much a year's gross turnover after tax, so I don't exactly have the money floating around in my cheque account). Summons? What summons? These are usually delivered by hand by a Sherriff, or nailed to your front door. No, they claim to have sent it by post (i.e. snail mail). Our postal service is notoriously unreliable, but the other mail from SARS seems to get through. I'm sure it never even left their building. I plan on explaining this incompetence to the judge.
Their "collections" approach seems to be that I must pay the money first, and if they decide I didn't need to (fat chance) then they can refund me. Since they have never ever sent me a refund cheque, I doubt if they will start anytime soon.
Enquiries to their "help" line have generally been fruitless. Most of the time one can tell after a few minutes of the person on the other end has any idea of what is going on. Usually not. At which point one simply has to hang up and try again.
No one can explain what happened to the money we have paid since 2006, or which tax year it has been allocated to. They also can't explain when the 2008 or 2009 assessments will be done, or if they have been done. And the "tax calculator" part of the Sars eFiling system doesn't work for 2009 or 2010, and when I asked about it they said that "it only does an estimate, which could be out by approx R15000 either way".
Fortunately we have found a group of accountants who seem to understand the nature of the beast, and we will now have to pay them to deal with SARS, who have been hell-bent on wasting my time and putting me out of business. Fortunately the accounting fees are tax deductible, but only as expenses. If I could deduct their fees from the amounts I actually have to pay SARS, then the government would be out of business. Sigh.
A word of advice: if you have to visit any government department, take a good book so you don't notice how long the queue takes. I recommend any of the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, because they are so bizarre that whatever comes next won't seem to be as odd as it would be on a normal day.

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