Keeping tax in perspective.
"What are you going to write about this issue?" Rick asked. "Oh, the usual--a little of this, a little of that," I nonchalantly answered. I have a couple of notes from retiring members, sharing how much their benefitted from belonging to TEI. I also thought I'd cover a couple of not-so-pleasant topics." I paused, and Rick's expression told me he knew" what I was talking about.
"Let me guess," he smiled. "Continuing, uh, challenges with our website and mail delays." Rick would know. As our webmaster and publications maven, Rick hears a lot of about both these topics. He's been in the forefront of our efforts to maintain and improve the website since it was launched in August 2004, and he has fielded more phone calls and emails about how long it takes the magazine and other materials to reach TEI members than anyone else on the staff.
Website Improvements and Snail Mail Laments
TEI's website is improving every day. More and more members are using it--to pay their dues, to learn about and register for educational programs, to share information and insights with their fellow tax executives, and to keep on top of TEI developments, at both the Institute and chapter levels. In July, for example, we averaged more than 625 visitors each day, with the sessions averaging more than 10 minutes each.
I don't think there is such a thing as a perfect website. At least I know that's what Rick thinks. The challenges with TEI's website, at least from my vantage point, fall into three categories--
* Members need help gaining access to the website, either because they have mislaid or forgotten their login and password, or because the Internet gods have fiddled with the "email me my password" feature.
* Transmission errors occur, with less than 100 percent of the information members are entering being written to our membership database. The vast majority of transactions begin and end as they are supposed to, but if your transaction falls into the "failed" category, you have every right to be upset. The worst part of the errors is that sometimes members' credit cards are charged but the payment is not linked to anything in their member record; the detective work in sorting out what payments go with which member is understandably frustrating to members.
* The content on the website is not as up to date or as voluminous as either our members or we on staff would like.
Rick and I--and the other members of the staff--sincerely believe that we are making progress on all three items, though the recent departure of Kelly Wilson from our staff has slowed our efforts. Kelly led our customer service and content management efforts, and she also worked quite effectively with our chapter website administrators to help them build their own chapter sites. We wish Kelly well in her new position with a graphic design and marketing firm, and hope to have a new Communications Specialist on board soon. In the meantime, Rick and Lars DeSalvio (TEI's Technology/Database Administrator) have stepped up to the challenge, engaging not only our outside vendors on the technological issues, but also other members in the staff on core customer service issues. We've all been trained--really, retrained--on handling website-related queries, and stand at the ready to respond to your questions. Questions or concerns about the website can be sent to email@example.com.
I wish I could report that the progress on circumscribing TEI's mailing travails had been as good. For years now, our Canadian (and non-North American) members have been vexed by mail delays. The "good news" is that most time-sensitive information is posted on the website, so our members won't necessarily be disadvantaged by the magazine and other materials travelling slower than the pony express. The bad news is that some information is still transmitted via traditional mail, and the expansion of TEI beyond North America means more members are affected by delays. Most recently, the proxies for the Annual Meeting of Members were mailed on July 5th. (Under the By-Laws, they can't be sent earlier than the first of July, and the Annual Meeting must occur on or before August 15.)
In an effort to cut down on cross-border delays, TEI contracted with an international mail expediter, which couriered the proxies en bulk to Canadian border and deposited them in Canada Post. (A similar procedure is followed in the other countries where we have members.) I wished the story ended there, but we received messages from members of the Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver Chapters that they received the proxies the last week of August--that is to say, two weeks AFTER the Annual Meeting of Members. (I can't imagine what the outcome would have been if we hadn't hired the "expediter.") On behalf of the Institute, I apologize to those members whose "TEI experience" is adversely affected by the miserable mail service. I know it's cold comfort to our Canadian, European, and Asia members--or perhaps an example of throwing good money after bad--but we spend considerable more (per capita) mailing to them than to our U.S. ones. Please be assured that we continue to work on this matter--without, we hope, causing an international incident.
Lest you think I have forgotten that I began this column by referring to the importance of keeping things perspective, let me get to my point: Concerns about the logging into TEI's website or getting mail across the U.S.-Canada border fade into insignificance when we are confronted the reality of Hurricane Katrina and the havoc that it's wreaked across the Gulf Coast of the United States. Indeed, the same can be said of the good work of TEI's committees--from our comments on the cost-sharing regulations and FASB's exposure draft on uncertain tax positions to our sold-out financial accounting seminar to our upcoming Annual Conference. As important as all these things are--and they are important--they must necessarily take a back seat to the human needs that manifest themselves in time of disaster and crisis.
And yet. And yet, in taking the back seat, they underscore the humanity that undergirds every successful organization, including TEI. Consider the following examples:
* As the magnitude of Katrina's damage unfolded, I received a message from Mike Boyle, TEI's president, asking that we reach out to the members of the New Orleans Chapter and other affected TEI members. We sent an email message to members of the chapter, extending the Institute's prayers and best wishes to the members and companies adversely affected by the Hurricane. Moreover, although it is a small consolation, we announced that any members feeling compelled to cancel their registration at an upcoming educational event would not be charged the cancellation fee. (One of the unsettling things about the exercise was the number of bouncebacks received with the notation "server not found.")
* We also heard from Judy Zelisko of Brunswick Corporation, TEI's immediate past president. Judy, who presided over last year's Annual Conference in New Orleans, shared her company's plan to provide boats to support rescue and evacuation efforts, and also inquired about the TEI members who made us all feel at home last October.
* Another call came from LMSB Commissioner Deborah Nolan, who discussed the IRS's efforts to relax certain tax deadlines and otherwise assist disaster relief efforts on the Gulf Coast, for example, by encouraging donations to qualified charities. That conversation complemented efforts by a number of companies to target their donations (and those of their employees) to adversely affected colleagues. Bob Ashby of Cracker Barrrel, another TEI past president, was especially helpful, as he pointed to the stream lined procedures the IRS put in place after 9-11 for processing section 501(c)(3) organizations.
* One of the most poignant messages came from a non-tax person who was looking for a cousin, a member of our New Orleans Chapter. Through the power of Google, he found the person's name on the chapter's website, and then contacted us with a request for his cousin's contact information.
The foregoing list is hardly exhaustive. Nor was Hurricane Katrina the only "triggering event" in recent months. The London subway bombings in July, for example, prompted calls from New York-based tax executives, inquiring whether a need existed for Inland Revenue to grant tax relief such as the IRS did in 2001. Emails and calls with members of the European Chapter and colleagues in the Chartered Institute of Taxation in the United Kingdom convinced us that the collateral effects of the bombings, as horrific as they were, did not necessitate a comparable response, but I was proud to be part of an organization whose members' humanitarian instincts were palpably evident.
The coming months will pose many challenges to tax professionals--from the proposals of the President's tax reform panel (see Eli Dicker's column), the ongoing stream of regulations from the IRS, budget proposals in Canada, and the enduring effects of Sarbanes-Oxley, to the Supreme Court's decision in Curio, implementation of the Streamlined Sales Tax Project, and the continuing repercussions of the federal government's initiative against tax shelters. As these challenges play out, they no doubt will create both opportunities for growth and accomplishment and the potential for problems and consternation. Throughout it all, we should strive to keep things in perspective.
Timothy J. McCormally, TEI Executive Director
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|Title Annotation:||less taxing matters|
|Author:||McCormally, Timothy J.|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2005|
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