Meet the new, helpful IRS Baltimore among 33 sites for payer-friendly 'problem solving day'

November 16, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Michael McDonald looked like a man who just had a $6,000 burden lifted from his shoulders.

After five years of phone calls and letters to the IRS, he found an agent willing to meet with him. Better yet, the 39-year-old Eldersburg man finally learned he wasn't responsible for the debt incurred by his bankrupt metal refinishing company.

"Before today, I kept getting the runaround, getting sent to other departments or they had trouble finding my records," said McDonald, who had a smile as wide as a spreadsheet. "This is fantastic. It seems like their attitude has really changed."

For eight hours yesterday, employees of the Internal Revenue Service in Baltimore and 32 other locations sponsored a national "Problem Solving Day" to let taxpayers know they have a friend in the tax-collection business.

Still smarting from the taxpayer horror stories revealed during a round of Senate hearings last month, IRS officials were anxious to tone down their image from the government's rampaging tyrannosaur to a warm and fuzzy Barney.

Within the rows of cubicles set up in the lobby of the George H. Fallon Federal Building in Hopkins Plaza, about 120 IRS employees were available to assist taxpayers who had made appointments or just walked in off the street.

The event attracted the agency's brass -- U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and newly installed IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti, who called the effort a first step toward a customer-friendly culture.

Media message

"The message is that we're going to work very, very hard to be accessible," said Rossotti, a former Virginia business executive in only his second day in the agency's top job. "Some of these cases get complex and unless you can meet face-to-face, it's hard to clear these cases."

In fact, the event was probably as much about sending messages to the invited media as helping individuals. About 3,500 taxpayers were expected in IRS offices nationwide; 195 people were served in Baltimore.

And while about two-thirds had their problem resolved on the spot, that's a tiny fraction of the country's 200 million tax filings and the estimated 6.7 million people who walk into IRS offices annually.

"There are always going to be problems," said Rubin. "The goal is to get them to an absolute minimum."

Not everyone walked out happy. Carl Davis, a retired state employee and part-time accountant, couldn't convince the IRS to reinstate his license to file returns electronically. He lost it earlier this year for filing a return 10 days late.

"People think the pressure from Congress will make them back off, but they'll keep doing their job," said Davis, 64, of Northwest Baltimore. "If they ever stopped, they'd be admitting their guilt."

If IRS officials wanted to find a discouraged taxpayer they could find no better example than Pamela Hodes. In 1989, she owed $10,329 in back taxes. Despite paying the IRS $17,000 since then, the debt is actually $200 larger today thanks to penalties and interest. After meeting with the IRS yesterday, she finally had hope.

"They handled it much more nicely," said Hodes, a Cockeysville resident who now expects to clear her debt soon. "I might have been able to resolve this a long time ago."

Mose Calloway, an Anne Arundel County deputy sheriff, has expectations for a similar outcome. He said he's already paid the IRS $20,000 in back taxes over the past five years -- and still owes $6,000 -- but hoped that $3,000 would set things straight.

"I just wanted to ask somebody who had an ounce of humanity to say this $20,000 was enough and we could start fresh," said Calloway, 53, of Gambrills, who spent 45 minutes working out a deal with an IRS agent.

Linda Autry, a Wilmington, Del., schoolteacher, was so pleased with an IRS "problem-solver" who discovered her husband had overpaid his taxes that she presented the employee with a tin of cookies.

IRS employees were only too happy to accept -- and were careful to do so in the company of a CNN news crew.

"I've worked for this agency for 22 years and I've worked hard," said Pam Votta, a taxpayer advocate in the Baltimore office, which serves Delaware, Washington and Maryland. "It's disturbing to hear the things that came out during the hearings. We know that's not what we do on a daily basis."

IRS officials said the problem-solving efforts were planned well before the Senate Finance Committee's investigation. Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a vocal IRS defender who also toured the Baltimore office yesterday, said Republicans had demagogued the agency's problems.

"There have been major reforms in the IRS the last two or three years," said Hoyer. "The public should feel good about what's happening today."

More help scheduled

Although it's still five months before taxes are due, the IRS plans to continue Problem Solving Day as a monthly event. The next in Maryland will be Feb. 11 in Salisbury, March 11 in Hagerstown and April 22 in Annapolis.

Taxpayers are also encouraged to call the IRS toll-free at 1-800-829-1040 if they have questions or wish to schedule an appointment.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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