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Irs Gripe Days Begin Saturday Criticized Tax Service Seeks To Create A ‘Different Culture’

The Internal Revenue Service begins its most visible response to taxpayer complaints - “problem-solving days” - starting Saturday in 33 cities. The tax agency hopes to handle at least some problems on the spot and send a message of a new commitment to personal attention.

Citizens can get the ear of IRS employees and talk about their lingering and unresolved tax problems, which could range from unresolved bills to errors with payments or IRS collection tactics.

“Having a national day, it’s almost the equivalent of a military stand down,” said Phil Brand, a former IRS chief compliance officer now at the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick. “I think it has a chance of being almost a seminal event for the service.”

dDeputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers agreed that beyond tackling taxpayer problems head-on, the sessions carry symbolic weight.

“Over time, problem-solving days and steps like it, (such as) strengthening the taxpayer advocate, will create an IRS with a different culture,” Summers said Tuesday.

The problem-solving days also allow the agency to present itself in a more positive light, particularly after Senate hearings into alleged IRS abuses last September.

Nationwide, the IRS has received 1,600 calls from taxpayers inquiring about the problem-solving days, said Summers, who oversees the administration’s efforts to overhaul the IRS. The IRS urges people to make appointments before Saturday so it can research cases beforehand.

“One of the very encouraging things is with many of the calls, there wasn’t a need to schedule an appointment because it was possible to work out the problem right then and there,” Summers said. Those without appointments won’t be turned away.

The IRS plans to hold Saturday problem-solving days each month in different cities in each of the 33 IRS districts. Senior managers in those districts, including the local “taxpayer advocates,” will be on hand. Some districts will have private accountants or enrolled agents on hand to offer free taxpayer assistance.

The idea was part of the Clinton administration’s response to the Senate Finance Committee oversight hearings into IRS mishandling of taxpayer cases. At those hearings, IRS agents leveled allegations of unethical collection practices and abuse of lower-income taxpayers least able to defend themselves.

The revelations led the acting IRS commissioner to issue an unusual public apology. The hearings also inspired the House last week to pass a bill to make the biggest restructuring at the IRS in 45 years.

And the White House, sensing a wave of anti-tax sentiment, is considering injecting a tax overhaul initiative into the State of the Union address next year. Democratic pollster Mark Penn is surveying voters on the issue for the White House, two administration officials said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some say the problem-solving days might create inflated expectations.

“The tax laws and regulations remain the same, and tax problems can be solved only within that context,” said Robert Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS workers.

xxxx THE CITIES Cities where the IRS is holding problem-solving days Saturday. Arizona: Phoenix California: Laguna Nigel, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Jose Colorado: Denver Connecticut: Hartford Florida: Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale Georgia: Atlanta Illinois: Chicago Indiana: Indianapolis Louisiana: New Orleans Maryland: Baltimore Massachusetts: Boston Michigan: Detroit Minnesota: St. Paul Missouri: St. Louis New Jersey: Newark New York: Brooklyn, Manhattan in New York City; Buffalo North Carolina: Greensboro Ohio: Cincinnati Oklahoma: Oklahoma City Pennsylvania: Philadelphia Tennessee: Nashville Texas: Austin, Dallas, Houston Virginia: Richmond Washington: Seattle Wisconsin: Milwaukee