A few people carried briefcases. Others clutched dog-eared manila folders or bulging envelopes as they waited recently in a small anteroom of the Santa Monica Fairview Library.
They were mostly small-business operators, and before the day was over, nearly 50 of them had face-to-face, free tax consultations with Conway H. Collis, one of the four elected members of the state Board of Equalization, which administers state business-tax programs, assesses utilities and controls property tax assessors, among other things. In most cases, their problems were solved on the spot.
For Collis, who took office in 1982 and faces reelection next fall, it was an opportunity to raise his own name recognition and to learn firsthand about the problems of the average taxpayer.
The "open office day" was similar to those he has been holding for the last year from one end of his 2nd District to the other. Some of the questions were new to him, and those he couldn't handle were referred to staff members of the local tax office who waited at nearby tables.
But most of them were familiar to him and his staff members even though they were sources of frustration and confusion to the men and women who came for help.
Robert Raimist of West Los Angeles voiced his displeasure when he was told that he will have to pay use tax, sales tax, registration fee and state and federal income tax on a car that his employer has given him. Raimist said the car was a gift, but Collis said it was part of his wages.
Law vs. Logic
"That's not fair!' Raimist said.
To which an aide to Collis replied, "It's a matter of legal interpretation, not logical."
Raimist's parting shot was, "I'm not going to take this lying down."
Collis was able to offer more hope to Byron Sheets, a retired Santa Monica businessman. Four or five years ago, Sheets said, he transferred his business to another party, selling his machinery for $90,000. He received only $10,000 from the new owners before the business folded. The Internal Revenue Service approved the return of his machinery to him, but the state insisted that he pay taxes on the full $90,000--money which he never received.
Sheets said he has already paid $3,600 in state income taxes and has had no success trying to straighten out the confusion between him and the tax collectors. The Board of Equalization told him that if he did not pay the taxes, his machinery would be taken, he said.
"This is outrageous," Collis said. "I would like for him not to have to hire a lawyer. He has suffered enough."
Sheets, Collis said, is a victim of a board policy that requires taxes to be paid before the board will act on a claim.
Collis said his office would take charge of the matter and try to get Sheets' money refunded, with interest.
Judith Pies, owner of a business called New Art Concepts, complained that when she returned from a two-month trip to Europe, she discovered that her tax bill had arrived while she was gone and that she was being charged charged interest and penalties.
"I called the office the minute I came back. They said you can appeal, but you must pay the interest," she said.
Collis and Joseph Coleman, his aide, explained that most of the letters sent out regarding tax bills are computerized. They took Pies' information and said they would try to get her a refund.
Donald Tartak of Santa Monica said he and his business partner broke up shortly after their company, Tartak-Libera, was audited. The partner was also the bookkeeper and for some time Tartak could not get possession of all the company financial records. He paid $2,000 in taxes that he should not have paid and missed the deadline for filing an appeal. Was there someone in Sacramento he could sit down with and talk to, Tartak asked.
Since the time to appeal the bill at the staff level had passed, Collis said, he would attempt to get the matter before the board. He could not make any promises, however.
"I have to get a vote on that and there are five members on the board," he said.
Kurt Bronner, a Santa Monica printing broker, wanted to know when he had to break down his statements for his clients, showing the cost of typesetting, plates, printing and artwork. He was confused over his most recent communication with the state Franchise Tax Board, he said.
"Sit down and write down each step of what you should be charging taxes on. We will give you some advice to follow today. Beyond that, I will give you a formal advice letter which you can keep. It will protect you if the law changes," Collis said.
Collis said that "in about one-third of the cases the taxpayer is right in some significant way. A lot of the cases we get are just plain confusion."
The takeout-food business is one of the most confusing, he said. Hot food is taxable, but cold food is not.
"They should tax it all, then reduce the sales tax," he said.
New businesses, where both products and services are sold, such as interior decorating, contracting, photography and printing, cause a lot of confusion, he said, because owners don't know which part of their operation is subject to sales taxes.
Collis said he has visited most of the 16 offices in his 2nd District, which extends from Los Angeles to San Francisco and includes most of the San Joaquin Valley.
His next open office day will be on Friday in the Antelope Valley. Then he will visit San Luis Obispo. Collis, a Los Angeles resident and former aide to Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif), has head quarters in Santa Monica, at 901 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 210. The telephone number there is (213) 451-5777.