The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Dallas, the IRS says it can’t chase tax cheats who owe less than $1 million

(Susan Walsh/AP)

DALLAS — The Internal Revenue Service collects about 93 percent of the revenue that keeps the federal government going.

But today in Dallas, there are more than 1,000 wealthy people who owe a whole lot of money the IRS says it isn’t even trying to collect.

If these taxpayers are delinquent on $900,000, for example, the IRS won’t go after them; budget reductions have forced the revenue collection staff to train its firepower on cheats who owe $1 million or more.

“I have to say, sorry, we can’t get that money,” said Richard Christian, supervisory revenue officer for the Dallas area.  “Nobody’s ever going to knock on their door.”

Five years of budget cuts by Congress have eroded customer service at walk-in centers and call centers across the country, with long waits for even basic tax help.

[A standard dejection in the IRS help line]

But the IRS says its enforcement arm has been crippled too, by 5,000 fewer revenue agents, revenue officers and criminal investigators. Officials estimate that $2 billion will go uncollected this year without these employees, who are not being replaced when they leave or retire.

[Declining workforce leaves call unanswered days before Tax Day]

In Texas, since 2010, the IRS has absorbed a 15 percent cut in the number of revenue officers, the employees who put liens on delinquent taxpayers’ property and knock on their doors to get them to pay up. Revenue agents, who conduct audits of individuals and businesses, are down 16 percent over the same period.
Christian, a plain-spoken manager who has worked more than 40 years at the IRS, is in charge of a team of 13 revenue officers whose territory stretches from Dallas to Waco, southern Oklahoma and parts of Kansas. They work the $1 million-plus cases, totaling about $125 million in uncollected taxes. The problem, as he explains it, is what they don’t work: Tax cheats who owe anywhere from $100,000 to $999,000.

In the Amarillo panhandle, for example, one agent on the team, Dori Stricklin, recently put a lien on the home of a taxpayer who owes $300,000, Christian said. Normally, Stricklin would knock on the taxpayer’s door and say, ‘We have a lien on your house,’ Christian explained. She would try to set up a payment plan.

“It can be as simple as, we really need you to move out of the mansion and into a three-bedroom house,” Christian said.

But the case is sitting in the queue, and will stay there, because Stricklin and her colleagues need to move on. They need to go after bigger fish who owe more.

“We just don’t have the manpower to get to everybody like we used to,” she said.

When someone hasn’t paid taxes, the best likelihood they’ll be collected is for the IRS to garnish the person’s wages. But millionaires don’t generally have regular jobs and paychecks that can be garnished, Christian said.

“If you owe $1 million, I’m going to knock on your door,” he said. “If you just owe $700,000, we’ll hope you get a job sometime so we can levy.”