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
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
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. …