More than a year after enactment of a law revamping the Internal Revenue Service, the tax collection agency is still struggling to bring its services up to acceptable standards, the agency's national taxpayer advocate said yesterday.
Many of the top problems of both taxpayers and the IRS are the same ones listed a year ago, the advocate found, and several that taxpayers find especially maddening are as high or higher on the list. These include the "tone and clarity" of IRS notices, the lack of one-stop service, and the inability to get through to the agency on the telephone.
Indeed, the agency's phone service has climbed to sixth place from 12th on the complaint list, according to the advocate, W. Val Oveson. He listed the problems and presented his assessment of the agency's effectiveness in an annual report to Congress, the second of his tenure.
Oveson said he is concerned about a "backlash" against the agency's new philosophy of balancing taxpayers' interest against the government's. And he indicated he is fearful that there will be a "reversal of the new direction toward stronger taxpayer service."
"If the IRS is going to provide the level of service demanded by the public, and they are currently not, then enforcement levels of the past cannot be achieved with the existing organization and resources," he said.
A General Accounting Office study released yesterday found that the agency "is in transition" as it tries to meet congressional requirements to provide greater taxpayer protections.
The GAO said property seizures dropped from 10,000 a year during the 1990-1997 period to about 200 in fiscal 1999, but it noted that officials expect the numbers to rebound as revenue officers adapt to the new rules. The GAO study also confirmed many of the problems, such as questionable or inconsistent decisions regarding seizures, outlined in Senate hearings and earlier IRS internal studies.
Oveson lamented Congress's lack of action on the legislative proposals he has offered.
He noted that the IRS has limited authority to abate interest charges--a great irritant to taxpayers because they become quite substantial when the agency's review of a return is delayed--and said he would like Congress to broaden that authority.
He urged Congress to repeal or ease the alternative minimum tax for individuals, saying that it is too complex and, because of inflation, is affecting taxpayers who are less well-off than those it was meant for.
The 10 most difficult tax problems confronting American taxpayers, according to the IRS's national taxpayer advocate, W. Val Oveson:
1. Complexity of tax law, particularly the earned-income tax credit and alternative minimum tax.
2. Unclear and threatening Internal Revenue Service notices and communications.
3. Improper filing of earned-income tax credit claims by lower-income workers.
4. Lack of one-stop service at the IRS.
5. Inconsistent application of tax penalties.
6. Frequent inability to reach the IRS via toll-free telephone calls.
7. IRS failure to acknowledge receipt of correspondence and payments.
8. Difficulty in handling tax matters involving divorced and separated people.
9. Inconsistent, unclear handling of the "offer in compromise" program for people who can't pay.
10. Lost and misapplied checks from taxpayers to the IRS.
-- Associated Press