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.

    Nina
    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
    Tuesday.

    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.

    The
    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.”

    Congress
    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.

    The
    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.