Tax Authority Chief Has His Hands Full as Northern Damage Grows

90,000 compensation claims need to be fully processed in less than four weeks.

The wage commission offered the private assessors their regular NIS 100 per hour rate. On Friday afternoon, with the city being bombarded, the assessors politely refused, and the commission had no choice but to raise its offer until it hit NIS 250 an hour, and the assessors finally agreed.

Tax Authority Director Jackie Matza relates this story to illustrate the massive logistics challenge facing the property tax commissioner in dealing with compensation for the war. This is one small glimpse at a job that has included 90,000 compensation claims thus far - the largest number authorities have had to handle in such a short period.

All of the claims must be processed by August 25, and the money must be transfered to the bank accounts of all 90,000 employers over coming month. An entire floor at the government's Kirya compound in Tel Aviv will turned into the commission's "war room" in the next few days. Over 60 data entry clerks will be hired to enter all the data from the claims and responding to them. They will be surrounded by countless technology professionals who will enable the uploading of forms via the Internet for all 90,000 claimants to download and print at home, as well as the reviewing of claims by personnel.

The commission does not plan to be turned into a "free lunch" counter. Wherever possible, every claim will be examined to ensure that the claimant actually owns a business, lives in the North, pays his workers the wages he reports - and not a third or quarter of it - and that the employer does not have a history of problematic income tax or VAT reports, or debts to those authorities. "Wherever possible," since the investigations need to be carried out without delaying the processing of claims beyond the four-week period. This means that the claims will not be reviewed as meticulously as usual.

And these are certainly not normal times. Five Property Tax Commission offices are working in the North in order to respond to all phone calls and flow of requests. At least one office operates 24 hours a day, even on weekends. Office personnel are collapsing under the workload - some have not been home for a week - and fresh workers are being sent to the northern offices to relieve them. At the same time, there are ongoing discussions to finalize compensation for the tourism and agriculture sectors.

Four government housing companies - Amidar, Amigur, Neve Nof and Shikmona - have been recruited by the commission to undertake renovation work on the thousands of damaged apartments. This step relieves apartment owners from hiring private contractors.

The four companies will have their hands full, since 5,000 claims have already been filed for direct property damage, 4,000 of which include structural damage. Informed sources estimate that the number of apartments damaged is even higher, with the true number becoming clear only after homeowners return from their enforced exile, and find out if their apartments are still standing, unscathed.

"A Haifa clerk suggested opening a branch in Eilat, because so many claims are being filed by Haifa residents currently in Eilat," Matza says. Another problem facing the commission is the nonstop flow of thousands of donations from abroad - both large and small. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sent 300,000 T-shirts -(Matza does not know what is printed on them). The tax authorities need to devote time to these gifts, too, since import duties must be paid on them. The tax authority yesterday filed an amendment for Knesset approval that calls for customs exemption on all donations in support of the war effort.

The commission will also need more staff on its appeals board. With 90,000 claims, even a small percentage of appeals will amounts to the hundreds. The tax administration's attorneys, who usually handle the appeals, will not be able to cope with the workload, and external attorneys are being hired for the job.

"This is a logistical project I never dreamed I would have to handle when I accepted this job," Matza says.