IRS panel seeks tax gripes

Personal Finance

January 23, 2007|By Eileen AMbrose | Eileen AMbrose,Sun Columnist

You can grouse and gripe all you want about the IRS. But does anyone listen?

As it turns out, Emilio Cecchi does.

The Rockville retiree is among more than 90 volunteers across the country who serve on the Taxayer Advocacy Panel. Their job: listen to taxpayer complaints and suggest ways for the IRS to do better. Volunteers log 300 to 500 hours a year.

Cecchi, 57, says he volunteered for the panel after retiring in 2005 from a marketing and sales job. He was surprised to learn early on that taxpayers want to avoid the IRS so much that they won't even open a letter from the agency, even if it might contain good news.

"They are so afraid the IRS will do something to them," he says. "That's a real pity."

The citizen panel was created on a small scale in the late 1990s after consumers complained of strong-arm tactics by the IRS. In 2002, it went national, with representatives in every state. The panel addresses customer satisfaction issues, not tax legislation.

Today, it receives 400 to 500 suggestions a month from around the country, says Nancy Ferree, the advocacy program's manager.

Some suggestions are simple, Cecchi says.

One taxpayer complained that he spent an hour filling out a tax return - only to find after answering 20 or so questions that his income was too high to use the form. Why can't the form put the income limit at the top so filers don't waste their time? the taxpayer asked.

Right now, Cecchi is working on one of the panel's big issues. Taxpayers complain about having to spend money on accountants or tax software just to pay Uncle Sam. Why doesn't the government offer tax preparation or software programs free for all filers? After all, the IRS Free File program files returns for free, but only those with adjusted gross income of $52,000 or less can use it.

(The panel already recommended that Free File be open to those with incomes up to $100,000).

Other big issues: the inability to get a live person on the phone at the IRS to answer tax questions, and complaints that IRS walk-in offices are closed at lunch, have long waits and don't carry all tax forms, Ferree says.

The panel says it has dozens of success stories. Among them: making the Earned Income Tax Credit online site more user-friendly. Revising IRS letters about the earned income credit so they are easier to understand. Reducing and simplifying the forms for filing an extension. And simplifying the training of volunteer tax preparers, which helped increase recruits.

So, do you have an IRS gripe? The tax panel wants to hear from you. Contact the panel at www.improveirs.org or call 888-912-1227.

Claiming a credit

Speaking of taxes, Dee of Baltimore wants to know how to claim the telephone tax credit. The one-time credit comes after the government abolished a century-old tax on long-distance calls last year.

Taxpayers have the choice of claiming a standard credit or the actual amount of phone tax paid during the previous three years.

Dee writes: "Are there any forms that have been published? I have saved all three years of my bills, and am anxious to know how to file for this rebate. ... My understanding was that there were `special' forms to be published for those who do not file taxes."

A line to claim the credit for the federal telephone excise tax appears on returns. On the 1040, it's line 71.

To claim the actual amount of tax paid, Dee and others also will need to fill out Form 8913 and attach that with their return.

A new tax return called the 1040EZ-T was created so lower-income individuals who don't usually need to file can claim the telephone credit. Again, if you're claiming the actual amount of taxes paid, you must fill out Form 8913 and attach it to the 1040EZ-T, says IRS spokesman Jim Dupree.

If you don't have old records, you can claim the standard credit based on the size of your household. The credit is $30 for one, $40 for two, $50 for three and $60 for four or more.

Questions? Comments? Write personal.finance@baltsun.com

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