Grumbles grow on church sponsored program

Published 10:24 pm Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It’s been more than a month since word spread to the public that they could receive instant refunds from their phone companies by filling out a simple application and bringing it to the New Selmont Baptist Church for processing. What was supposed to be a time of joy for many local residents has instead become a time of confusion —leaving many disgruntled.

“They told me I was supposed to get back $574, but I haven’t received anything yet,” said Ahmad Hakim, who filed a claim with the church on May 16. “If we’re only expected to get $30-$60 (as told by DC Tax Service website), then how does that benefit us — especially if we’re using gas to make two to three trips?”

Audrey Carr, who has made constant calls to the church to check on her claim’s status, also has mixed feelings.

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“I’m kind of leery and upset,” Carr said. “I expect the church to be professional and at least have an available number for people to contact and keep us informed. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on.”

One volunteer with the church, who asked to be unidentified, said she’s seen hundreds of letters from the Internal Revenue Service stacked in boxes inside the church’s office.

“I’m upset and confused,” she said. “People want to know what the IRS has sent to them — they want answers. As of May 8, I haven’t received any funds.”

Margaret Perry, wife to New Selmont pastor David Perry, said she too is waiting on her refund she filed in mid-April. Perry said more than 90 percent of individuals who signed up for a refund did not pay the $22 processing fee up front; therefore, the letters were sent to the church for pick-up.

“I put in my claim and am still waiting on it, but it hasn’t been eight weeks yet either,” Perry said. “Some people have already received their checks in the mail, but if correspondence from the IRS comes back, persons have to send bills to substantiate their claims and show the claims are legitimate. Some letters came in last week and some Saturday.”

Perry said the envelopes, which only have a person’s name and the church’s address on them, can’t be passed out just yet. She insists the church is doing what they can to contact patrons.

“We have more than 3,000 sheets — stacks and stacks of paper — that have different dates on them,” Perry said. “We have to sort through all the papers and put them in alphabetical order before we can start handing out the envelopes. We don’t want to open the envelopes out of privacy reasons.”

In a previous interview with the Times-Journal, David, who partnered with the Dothan tax service owner Tony Butler earlier this year, said the project has been a success in surrounding areas. He also said according to the Telephone Excise Tax Refund (2003-2006), communication companies such as AT&T, Bellsouth and Charter had been illegally overcharging customers in extra excise taxes, prompting a ruling from the U.S. Appellate courts to put a burden on phone companies to refund its customers.

According to its website, the tax service said refunds can range anywhere between $30 to $60 and can include long distance or bundled services charges. The refund is calculated through a computer program that combines a person’s monthly bill times $41, times 3 percent, plus interest.

According to the IRS, individual taxpayers have requested large and improper amounts in the special telephone tax refund, instead of the suggested 3 percent on long-distance and bundled service to which they are entitled.

In order for persons to request the refund, they had to fill out a form detailing such personal information as filing status, name and social security numbers, along with the $22. Margaret said once the sheets were sent to the IRS, the church only kept applicant’s numbers, to call them back once their refunds arrived. For those who pay the fee up front, the money is placed in a separate account, untouched.

“People don’t know the expense we’ve gone through to help the community,” Margaret said. “When people hear the word ‘money,’ they automatically think something bad.”

So why would the church partner with the tax service to help issue refunds?

“Because no one locally was doing it,” Margaret said. “Tony was the only tax preparer who found out about it from the IRS’ website.”

Butler said when he began the tax refunds in 2007 he had 4,000 claims. Nearly 3,000 people later received checks.

“It was a success in my community,” Butler said. “This is a real refund from the IRS, and people need to be patient on the system.”

And though the standard refund amount is between $30 to $60, Butler said individuals can get more money depending on the amount of taxes paid and service used.

“Many companies and major corporations that are owed between $5,000 to $10,000 in excise taxes are involved in this process,” Butler said. “I’m just trying to give money back to the community.”

Butler insists he hasn’t made any money from the process and is only trying to be a blessing to the community. The money in the church’s separate account, Butler said, can be used as it sees fit.

“I’m not a rich man and I don’t want to make a profit from this, especially not from Selma,” Butler said. “We’ve only tried to do what is right and, if we haven’t, maybe the IRS can show us what needs to be done.”

Margaret said the church is no longer taking applications for the Telephone Excise Tax Refund but will try to contact individuals who received information from the IRS this week.

“I apologize to the community for not moving expediently enough,” Margaret said. “But we’re trying to make the right decisions on this.”