No more Mr. Nice Guy

The Internal Revenue Service has abandoned its friendly facade, replacing it with a new, get-tough-and-collect-the-money approach to taxpayers.

After years of improving services to taxpayers, the IRS may be eroding its gains by allocating more money and employees
to collections, audits and criminal investigations, according to the
office that helps people resolve disputes with the tax agency.

Olson, the nation’s taxpayer advocate, said the IRS within the past
year eliminated telephone filing services and reduced its target for
the number of taxpayer calls it attempts to answer.

It also
proposed _ but was blocked by Congress from _ closing 68 centers where
taxpayers can get face-to-face help and from reducing the hours of
toll-free telephone assistance.

Olson labeled the changes to
taxpayer service the No. 1 problem in her annual report of the worst
difficulties facing taxpayers, which she delivered to Congress on

The IRS strongly disagreed with Olson’s assessment and
said the agency maintained a high level of service while improving the
agency’s tax law enforcement record _ despite devoting substantial
assistance to hurricane victims last year.

“In virtually all
service areas, our performance and accuracy have improved even while we
are revitalizing our enforcement program,” the agency said.

agency also noted that the IRS Oversight Board, an independent
watchdog, said the agency had achieved an appropriate balance between
taxpayer service and tax law enforcement.

Olson also said the IRS
freezes tens of thousands of tax refunds it deems questionable without
telling people that they’re suspected of fraud.

“It is a central
tenet of American law that the government must notify an accused person
of the offense it suspects he committed and must give the accused
person an opportunity to present exculpatory evidence to show his
innocence,” she said.

Richard Speier, acting chief of the IRS
Criminal Investigation office, said the tax agency is “very
comfortable” that when it determines that someone committed a
fraudulent act that “we do have that correctly identified.”

criticized the IRS in the late 1990s for putting too much emphasis on
tax collection at the expense of basic taxpayer services, like
telephone assistance and tax law help. It ordered the IRS to revamp its
organization and improve services.

Improvements to taxpayer
services resulted in a decline in audits and other enforcement actions,
and the IRS has in the past few years tried to achieve a better balance
between those two missions.

Olson said recent changes to customer
service don’t take into account taxpayers’ needs. The agency is pushing
taxpayers toward less expensive service, like the Internet, but that
may not make sense for many taxpayers, she said.

IRS officials say they must make changes to absorb cuts to the agency’s customer service budget.

IRS said it’s constantly trying to make more efficient use of its money
in ways that improve taxpayer service, such as advanced call routing
systems, interactive aids for employees and expanded service during the
spring tax return filing season.

Congress has instructed the IRS
to work with the taxpayer advocate and others to review its taxpayer
services and develop a five-year plan for improvement.