IRS, post office gear for tax deluge

FEDERAL WORKERS

April 13, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- These are very busy days for workers at the federal agency detested by many Americans.

"We're being deluged with calls," says Dom LaPonzina, spokesman for the Baltimore district office of the Internal Revenue Service. "The phones are ringing off the hook."

Nearly 900 IRS employees in Baltimore find themselves caught in the tax-filing frenzy as Marylanders race to complete their 1993 returns by the April 15 deadline.

"This is something we go through every year," Mr. LaPonzina says. "It's really not a novelty to us."

In an IRS first-floor office in the federal building in Baltimore, workers are fielding abut 10,000 calls a day from confused taxpayers. That's more than twice the number of calls on a typical afternoon in the tax off-season.

The IRS isn't the only place feeling the hysteria. Workers in Baltimore's central post office are getting ready for a late night Friday to help terminally late filers get their forms postmarked before midnight.

"We'll have twelve people outside the main post office, directing traffic flow and taking the mail from postal customers as they ride by," says Patricia Mink, customer relations coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service in Baltimore. IRS workers will be at the post office Friday night to answer last-minute questions.

Because of late-filing taxpayers, April 15 proves to be one of the busiest days for Baltimore postal employees, Ms. Mink says. The city's postal workers processed 1.3 million tax forms on that date last year.

To help ease some of the tension created by Uncle Sam's notorious 1040 forms, many federal workers are doubling as tax-code translators.

Since early February, Karen Mayr, a congressional liaison for the IRS in Baltimore, and three other IRS workers have volunteered during off-duty hours to help elderly and low-income people figure out the tax forms. It has been particularly frenzied the past two weeks.

"It's a nightmare right now," Ms. Mayr says. "A lot of the time, people wait until the last minute, and your phone is ringing off the hook at home."

But her expertise comes in handy. She can finish a tax return in 25 minutes. The tougher cases take an hour.

Ms. Mayr has volunteered her services for the past decade.

"People depend on us, they trust us," she says. "They know that we're going to be there for them. They're just reassured. They're happy the service is available and there's no charge."

But not everyone is so cheerful at the sight of an IRS employee.

IRS workers acknowledge that the general public has little affection for the agency, and that angers them.

"IRS employees face some of the worst antipathy and hostility -- and they don't ever deserve the abuse they get," says Susan Holliday, a spokeswoman for the National Treasury Employees Union. "Our country couldn't exist without the IRS and the work that it does."

To improve the image of the IRS, Ms. Holliday says, the union has written letters to newspapers, complaining about cartoons and comics that depict employees as barracuda.

"In the past, we've done public service campaigns," she says. "And our locals have their own outreach efforts."

So too does the IRS. The agency encourages current employees and former staffers to offer tax help to people who need it.

Calvin R. Wilder, who worked for the IRS for more than two decades, retired eight years ago. These days, the Baltimore resident visits senior citizens in nursing homes and works on their tax forms for free.

"You talk to these people and you look at them and you see the confusion in their eyes," says Mr. Wilder, 69, a former auditor. "I know I have a knowledge that an awful lot of people don't have. I'm more familiar with this work than I am with anything else."

He sets up 12 centers in Baltimore where low-income residents can seek help and oversees nearly 40 volunteers in the free service.

The work can be grueling at times, he says.

"Some of the people come in and if you don't give them exactly what they want, they can be noisy, rude, discourteous," Mr. Wilder says. "They don't like what we're telling them and they get mad."

But most of the time the work is rewarding.

"When you do something for the little man, when he has a nice smile on his face," Mr. Wilder says, "then that's gratifying every time."

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