WASHINGTON -- Little tokens of hostility, like roaches and razor blades, turn up in the mail. Assaults and threats come at the rate of 50 per month. The budget has been cut for two years running.
Just as paying taxes can be unpleasant, life at the Internal Revenue Service often isn't easy, either. Now, officials in Washington are trying to work out a truce between the tax collector and the taxed.
While there is no consensus on how to proceed, many of the proposals share a similar theme: that the IRS could benefit from ideas fashionable in managing police departments, which aim to improve relations between officers and the neighborhoods they serve. White House officials said President Clinton may propose creating an independent citizen's review panel to field complaints from taxpayers about the IRS. The president may also call for local review boards in each of the 33 IRS districts. People who first suggested the idea to an IRS commission last year said the boards should be modeled on the citizen's panels in many cities that make sure accusations of police brutality and unfair police treatment are investigated. Other measures draw from the idea of "community policing," the notion that police should leave their cruisers and walk the neighborhoods to form better relations with residents. One plan already adopted by the IRS is "problem-solving day," which is held each month in each IRS district, for taxpayers to bring problems to top managers. Separately, acting IRS commissioner Michael Dolan has pledged that IRS offices will no longer be graded on the amount of revenue they produce. Current rules already bar the agency from evaluating agents on the amount of tax dollars they bring in, but the new pledge could lessen the pressure on agents and managers to become overly aggressive in pursuing taxpayers. The push to improve the IRS has intensified in recent days, after high-profile Senate hearings last month in which taxpayers told nightmarish stories of harassment by IRS agents. A Delaware contractor testified that he paid the government $50,000 he did not owe to end a case in which IRS officials concocted a partnership between his firm and a company that had failed to pay taxes. A priest told of IRS agents threatening to seize his bank account and car for taxes he did not owe. A woman told of having property seized because the agency sent notices only to her ex-husband. Stories like these can make it harder for the IRS to collect taxes, said Senator Robert Kerrey (D-Neb.). Because the tax system relies on voluntary compliance, it can be undermined by anything that scares taxpayers from working with the agency, he said. Already, IRS agents are noting an increase in the number of taxpayers who refuse to respond when the agency calls, said Robert Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "They're saying, `I'm not going to talk to you. Didn't you see the hearings?'" said Tobias, who represents IRS workers. For years, the IRS has considered calls that it should act less like a law enforcement agency and do more to help taxpayers figure out how to comply with the law. …