Bankers and corporate officials are grumbling about continued delays and confusion in dealing with a federal requirement that tax deposits be made electronically.

Private-sector officials said they need further clarification from two Treasury Department agencies - the Internal Revenue Service and Financial Management Service - before they can fully participate in the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System.

The confusion centers on several questions, such as when the system will actually be operational. Banks want to see it up and running so they can test their in-house payment systems.

Companies, meanwhile, would like to learn whether electronic, same-day settlement systems such as Fed Wire can be used for the money transfers.

The Treasury Management Association, a Bethesda, Md., trade group for corporate financial officers, says the government has done a poor job educating the taxpayers on whose participation the electronic tax system depends.

"The IRS is just making trouble for itself," said Arlene Chapman, the group's standards manager.

"The only way we learn what's going on is if we call them ... or we see something in the newspaper and we call and ask for information."

A letter her group sent to the IRS in August for clarification on several issues went unanswered, she said.

The electronic tax mandate was a byproduct of the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed into law in January 1994. To offset federal revenue declines, it aims to speed corporate tax remittances and alleviate problems associated with checks and related paper processing.

The electronic-payment mandate was to be phased in beginning last year, starting with the corporations that have the largest federal tax obligations. Affected to date are about 1,600 organizations, each owing at least $47 million.

When the system is fully phased in, 90% of U.S. companies will be affected.

Corporations currently pay their taxes using a system called Taxlink, which is a prototype for the electronic federal tax payment system.

The threshold will be lowered next year to include companies that pay as little as $50,000. More than 1.2 million companies fall under that requirement.

A recent survey conducted by Automatic Data Processing Inc., Roseland, N.J., indicated a majority of U.S. businesses are not aware of the mandate.

Government officials, however, said more than 500,000 companies have already gone through the preliminary enrollment stages.

"Anytime you have a new program and you are transforming the way you do business, whether it's in the private sector or public sector, there's going to be some education to do and some obstacles to overcome," said James Hagedorn, spokesman for the Financial Management Service.

IRS spokesman Ken Hubenak said his agency hopes to have detailed information packages mailed to enrolled taxpayers by December of this year. Included will be a booklet describing recent changes, including the six- month extension of the mandate's effective date, to July 1997.

In response to the Treasury Management Association's earlier statements, Mr. Hubenak said Fed Wire will be an acceptable - albeit costly - form of payment when compared to the automated clearing house.

Still, many private-sector officials blamed a lack of communication for many corporations' inadequate preparations.

Thomas Evans, chief financial officer at BCE Investments Inc., Nashville, said he is interested in developing electronic tax payment capabilities, "but the information coming from the Internal Revenue Service right now is confusing at best."

The company manufactures seating and interior panels for boats and trucks.

Mr. Evans said the IRS mixes electronic tax information in with regular correspondence, a sign that "the IRS doesn't know how to communicate."

Bankers' gripes focus on the delays in starting the tax collection system, which will rely on the fiscal agency services provided by NationsBank Corp. and a joint venture called First Chicago/Mercantile Services.

An official at Wachovia Corp., speaking on condition of anonymity, said the bank would like to test its existing payment systems but has long been waiting on the IRS. The banker noted the electronic tax payment system was supposed to be operational by late 1995.

"We can't even test our systems until customers start getting (payment) confirmations back," the banker said."

"Our bankers are raising hell" because they have to face many small companies "coming in and asking questions," the official added.

Lawrence Buettner, senior vice president of First Chicago/Mercantile Services, said the IRS felt it was necessary to get a mailing out to all of the mandated taxpayers before the system is up and running, which he said will occur within a month.

"The IRS took to heart the criticism, and they've done something about it," he said.

A Citicorp officer, who also requested anonymity, said at least some of the corporate confusion stems from a recent IRS letter that led many corporations to believe that automated clearing house credit payments are more desirable than automatic clearing house debits.

The banker said such credits allow corporations to control their payouts but "present lots of problems for banks."

The banker also said an institution would incur liability if it posts payment information, only to discover inadequate funds in the corporation's account.

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