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At tax centers, IRS agents still can't get it right



Published: Tue, July 17, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



You would think that after Congress demanded that the Internal Revenue Service restate its mission to place emphasis on serving the public and meeting taxpayer needs, agency managers would get the word across to their subordinates. You would be wrong. You might think that the IRS would respond to the concerns of the General Accounting Office -- Congress' watchdog -- or the Treasury Department's own Inspector General for Tax Administration particularly as they relate to taxpayer service. But if you did, you'd be wrong again.

Apparently the hostility and ineptitude among some rank-and-file IRS employees is so deeply entrenched that we have to wonder what senior managers can do to remake the ethos that apparently governs the service.

High error rate: While a Treasury Department sampling of service at IRS walk-in centers this year found that in the majority of contacts, investigators were served within 15 minutes and were treated courteously, agents gave them incorrect or insufficient advice on their tax questions 73 percent of the time. At least that's a slight improvement over last year's 81 percent error rate.

Pamela Gardiner, the Treasury Department's inspector general for audits, reported that in one case, "a reviewer (who waited 11/2 hours) was told to read a stack of publications and 'do her homework' to figure the answer out." She was told "it would take eight hours to answer all of her questions and he did not have the time." Another investigator, while stating her question, was interrupted and told to return on another day since no one was available to answer questions for that particular topic. That reviewer was not even referred to a publication.

Considering that 9 million taxpayers use the 400 walk-in centers around the country, there must be millions of people who have been treated as badly as the inspector general's staff.

Action not excuses: In its defense, the agency pointed to understaffing, inadequate technical resources and insufficient training. None of that explains away the rudeness or the 73 percent of wrong answers. Besides which, the public doesn't want excuses, it wants action.

The IG's scrutiny is on-going. The agency promises that improvement will be evident by next season. The nation's taxpayers will be watching.




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