Saturday, December 13, 2003

Ohio tax rules hurt small businesses

Your voice: Bill Jelen

The new destination-based sales tax rules by the Ohio Department of Taxation (ODT) are an unfair burden to small businesses across the state. In an effort to shift tax revenue around, the state is costing businesses millions of dollars in software upgrades. This will result in either higher prices for consumers or the shifting of dollars to out-of-state firms.

I own a small business. I write books on Microsoft Excel and sell these throughout the world from an automated form on my Web site. Now, based on the new rules, when I sell a book somewhere in the state of Ohio, I am supposed to figure out to which county the book ships and charge the appropriate sales tax.

This is nearly impossible to do right. A customer living in Loveland, OH 45140 can be in either Hamilton County or Clermont County. I have to literally track this down by street address in order to get the right county. There are numerous examples of streets that run from one county to another and have the same zip code. The post office's system does not follow county lines, so it is impossible to rely on zip code to determine the county.

ODT suggests giving all tax revenue from Internet sales in zip code 45140 to Hamilton County. This is unfair to buyers in Branch Hill, Epworth Heights and Twightwee. Zip codes 35255, 45244, and 45241 also straddle county lines, redirecting money that should go to Warren, Butler and Clermont counties.

In their bid to capture more taxes on Internet sales, the state has neglected to find out how to get from A to B in practical terms. With Web site sales, the automated "shopping carts" will charge the customer's Visa long before I can research the address to find the proper county. This will require tens of thousands of dollars to develop mapping software to determine the correct county.

With the current system, a business owner has to learn only once the tax rates for his location. With the destination-based system, businesses will have to ask the taxing location thousands of times per year.

U.S. retail sales account for about one-third of my revenue. Assuming Ohio accounts for 1/50th of that number, the state is asking me to implement a complicated and costly process for less than 1 percent of my revenue. Because only the county "piggyback" sales tax is affected, I must spend thousands in order to accurately divide $33 in county tax 88 ways. I would just as soon redirect those sales to Amazon.com, in which case the state will lose all of its tax revenue.

ODT gave 57 days' notice on the new rule, which would have taken effect in January. They've wisely backed this date to Jan. 1, 2005 to give businesses time to spend an estimated $400 million to adapt. The department should cancel the rules. Or it should spend the money once to develop a computer-based tool that can accurately Geocode any address to the right taxing district - and make this available to all Ohio businesses.

Bill Jelen of Uniontown, Ohio, is the proprietor of MrExcel Consulting (www.mrexcel.com).

Want your voice to be heard? Send your column or proposed topic to Ray Cooklis at rcooklis@enquirer.com; (513) 768-8525.

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