The good news is that the taxpayer assistance program operated by the Internal Revenue Service has increased its productivity. Agency officials say that they are answering more taxpayer questions than ever, despite reduced staff.
Now for the bad news:
* The answers that taxpayers get when calling for information are less accurate than in the past. Agency surveys show that IRS answers are wrong 6 percent of the time, compared with last year's 5 percent error rate.
* One-on-one assistance is being replaced by computers. "If you deal with an individual one-on-one, it will cost more than if you deal with them via automation," said Walter Alt, director of IRS taxpayer services. As a result, he said, the IRS wants taxpayers to call Tele-Tax, a computer that is available 24 hours a day that plays taped information, instead of IRS employes.
* Taxpayers who call for live assistance are apt to get a busy signal before they get an answer. During the first week of March, the tax offices that serve Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia answered 69,385 calls. But 78,201 callers could not get through the busy signals.
Nationally, the number of calls answered during the first week of March was about 45,000 higher than last year's figure, reaching 1,074,908. There was, however, an extraordinary increase in the overflow, the number of callers who received busy signals. From 668,000 in the first week of March last year, it rose to 2,278,188 in the same period this year.
And for those who do get through the busy signals, there may be other hurdles.
One retired federal worker, hoping to beat the rush, called the IRS in January with a tax question involving a stock sale. After 12 tries in an hour, he finally reached an aide and explained his question.
"They said I should hold [on] and they would connect me," the taxpayer said. "But then they came back and said the lines were busy and that I would have to call back. I said, 'My goodness, after spending over an hour trying to get through, can't you let me hold so I don't have to go through that again.'
"They said no, and they cut me off."
This taxpayer, who lives in Arlington, asked not to be identified because he did not "want the IRS coming after me."
IRS officials said they are satisfied with the level of service that they are able to give taxpayers struggling with questions that must be answered if they are to meet the April 15 filing deadline.
"We are at about 75 percent level of service -- that means that seven of 10 individuals can get through at any given time and get an answer," said Alt. "And I can live with that."
He said he can live with a taxpayer having to make up to 10 calls to get through on a Monday, which is the busiest day for IRS, and up to six calls any other day of the week. "That isn't ideal, but it is acceptable," Alt said.
Local IRS officials agree that they are providing ample help for taxpayers and play down the complaints from some of them, like the Arlington retiree, that "the lines are always busy."
Dom LaPonzina, public relations director of the IRS' Baltimore office, which handles calls from Maryland and District of Columbia taxpayers, put it this way:
"As far as somebody calling in to ask if they can declare their goldfish as a dependent, there isn't a problem, except maybe on Monday."
During the first week of March, the Baltimore office answered 45,242 calls and recorded 16,320 "overflow" calls. The "overflow" represents the number of calls from people who got a busy signal. Of the "overflow" calls, 8,720 were on Monday, 6,000 on Tuesday, 500 on Wednesday, 700 on Thursday and 400 on Friday.
Alt said the IRS, "to get the productivity we are looking for," must have calls queued. If callers are waiting, IRS representatives can move quickly from one to the next.
IRS figures show that 4,314 representatives provided tax information to 53.6 million requests for assistance in fiscal 1984. That was a more productive year, Alt said, than fiscal 1982 -- before sharp employee cutbacks -- when 4,777 workers provided information in response to 47.4 million requests.
But the National Treasury Employes Union, which represents IRS workers, said that the agency has made productivity gains by establishing unrealistic quotas on the number of calls that workers must answer. And the union said that IRS workers -- particularly those hired for the tax season -- are not given adequate training before they go to work answering questions.
Union spokesman George King said the quotas and the inadequate training have led to reduced services and inaccurate answers. "There is no such thing as taxpayer service anymore," he said.
The IRS said there are no agency quotas for workers but that there are standards. "These standards are normally obtained at the end of the year, based on the number of hours and the number of calls," said Alt.
Alt rejected the union argument that workers are not trained adequately. He said that a new employe receives five weeks of classroom instruction and one to three weeks of on-the-job training.
As for the accuracy of the IRS' answers, Alt said the agency is trying to "balance productivity with the quality of information." To improve accuracy, he said, more calls are being monitored by senior tax representatives who listen to the answers given by colleagues.
Because "tax laws are extremely complex, we will make mistakes, I have no doubt of that," Alt said. "But I am trying to minimize those mistakes, though I doubt that they can be completely eliminated."