I have read (Yes, I still read newspapers!) that taxpayers have been much slower in filing their returns this year. I would not speculate on whether that is because they are following the lead of our Tax-Avoider-Sleazy-Business-Man-in-Chief (Sorry, that’s as objective as I can get.) or a response to recent tax reform that gives above-mentioned Tax-Avoider-Sleazy-Business-Man-in-Chief and his cronies tax savings that we on the lower end of the economic scale could never hope for, or because the IRS, which historically has not been celebrated for its customer service, has recently enjoyed staff cuts.
Whatever the reason, as we are in the merry Lenten pre-tax season, I thought that I would share with you a letter I wrote to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration last year, after my granddaughter came to me in some frustration over her efforts to file a return.
I am sure that you will be shocked and dismayed to learn that I did not receive a response.
For the (vinyl) record (I can’t scare together enough for a small CD) here is my letter:
Hating the IRS has long been an American pastime greater than baseball, football, or apple pie. That passionate loathing has traditionally been precipitated by the perception that that organization is less scrupulous than the much maligned organized crime. At least the IRS is less organized, and now it seems to have become more theater of the absurd than nefarious evil-doers.
This year, one of my grandchildren had the great misfortune and greater frustration of attempting to file tax returns for the first time. She received her W-9s in January and immediately filed her federal and state returns. She received her state refund a few weeks later, but from the federal government, she received a letter. In my experience, there are few pieces of mail more ominous or unwelcome than a letter with “Internal Revenue Service” in the return address.
True to form, this letter was not good news. As a first time filer, she had to prove her identity via one of two convenient processes: the Internet and the telephone.
She first chose the Internet option, idverify.irs.gov. Completing the information as required, she received this message:
We are unable to verify your identity online
Please call the Taxpayer Protection Program hotline at 1-800-830-5084 to verify your identity. We can’t process your return until then.
So, she decided, perhaps the telephone route would be preferable…particularly in that the Internet option didn’t seem to be working for her.
So, she called the 800 number, where she was thanked for calling and told that “due to extremely high call volume” her call could not be completed “at this time.” She was referred to the IRS website whence we had come, or invited to call again.
Obviously, the IRS.gov website was not the answer, but we tried just to leave no avenue unexplored. If we had a question, the IRS website offered plenty of generic answers, but as we were not the ones with a question, IRS.gov was not the answer.
Trusting in our government, we both tried the “idverify” website and 1-800 number (We also tried the 1-800-829-1040 for variety.) with the same result, every time, time after time.
After a few days of sporadic efforts to contact our government so that my grandchild could fulfill her obligations to said government, we decided that the result of repeated efforts to make contact by telephone or online would not likely change. And this was only the third week of February, before the great crush on or about April 15. Clearly, a personal visit was in order.
Well, two years ago, we moved from Metropolitan D.C. to a rural community in Page County in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. In Washington we never had trouble finding government employees. Whether they were helpful might be in question, but their presence was undeniable. So, we returned to the Internet to locate our nearest IRS office.
The IRS office locater (Yes, that is a thing. There is an IRS office locater for those of us who actually want to seek them out: https://apps.irs.gov/app/officeLocator/index.jsp.) allowed us to search for an office within 5 miles of our zip code. Alas, alack, and who would’ve guessed, there was none.
Ten miles? No joy.
Twenty? Unh uh.
The next choice was 50. Was there an IRS office within 50 miles?
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Not one, but two offices were available in less than 50 miles. None in our county, but we did find offices in Charlottesville, over the mountain in Albemarle County, or one in Staunton in Augusta County.
First, I prudently decided to telephone the local offices in the misguided belief that I might talk to someone. Of course, I was greeted with a recorded message thanking me for calling the office, but no personal assistance is provided at this number…and don’t even bother leaving voicemail, ’cause there is no option to do so.
A personal visit it would be.
Well, cleverly, I dismissed Charlottesville, thinking that the larger city would more likely be overwhelmed with large numbers of walk-ins. Closer inspection revealed that the Charlottesville office is closed for lunch from 12:30-1:30–and from January 15 through March 1–no doubt a feature of the IRS campaign for taxpayers to file early to avoid the April rush.
Appointments are not accepted at either location, although only the Augusta County was an option for about the next month.
We crossed Rockingham County to Augusta County to the IRS office in Staunton, home of the Statler Brothers and birthplace (on the same street) of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, who, for the benefit of Trump supporters, was a president of the United States. Neither is relevant; both are interesting. To me.
The Staunton office, tucked discretely away in an office park on Coulter Street, closes for lunch from 12-1. We arrived at 12:55, noting the sign that says “by appointment.” Without having an appointment, we hesitated, but decided to expect that this was just another error and found the office by following the line of people waiting at the door.
Just after 1:00, the door opened and two women and a male security guard harangued the mob of 10 people to “take a ticket and be seated.” The three of them kept repeating it, reminding me of a police raid, with everyone shouting “Show me your hands. Now! Now! Now!” I flashed back to Army basic training.
By 1:05, one of the women had placed a sign in front of the box from which numbers are drawn, indicating that no more tickets would be issued. Seven people or pairs had drawn lucky numbers. In less than five minutes, they had exhausted their willingness to enjoy face time with their public.
The women hovered while the guard told everyone to turn off or silence their cellphones and informed us that, if we were carrying guns, knives, tear gas, or other weapons we had to take them outside. (Note: if I were carrying a weapon with evil intent, I might not comply.)
The women made a show of going in and out of the door with a combination lock, taking the first two supplicants into the back, which was separated from the waiting area by aforementioned combination-locked door in a partial wall that included several movable partitions., which meant that it took longer to punch in the code than to walk between the partitions. (How did we ever win a war?)
I was especially amused when one of the women was entering the combination to enter the door while a customer walked between the partitions to leave the office for a few minutes before re-entering between the partitions.
While the two IRS employees, whom I thought of as Mabel and Ethel because they appeared more like a couple of church ladies clumsily organizing a coffee than government employees announced that no more tickets would be issued until they determined that they would be able to assist those who already had numbers. She announced this to those of us who already had tickets, and to whom, therefore, the information was irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the security guard peered out the front door and repeatedly adjusted the blinds.
Once or twice, Ethel–or maybe it was Mabel–opened the door to look at the people waiting.
Once she opened the door and made a vague wave before saying, “I was going to say something, but….” before ducking back into the room and closing the door.
Mabel–or maybe it was Ethel–returned to the waiting area with a cardboard box, which she placed over the ticket dispenser, apparently fearing that the sign saying that no tickets would be distributed because they were going to lunch would be ignored. Then she took the sign away, only to return within minutes to prop the sign in front of the box that covered the ticket dispenser.
The guard peered through the blinds on the door, adjusting them every few minutes, apparently signaling–or trying to confuse–the enemy.
Each time someone new entered, the guard approached almost toe to toe and instructed him–or her, or them–to turn off or silence his–or her or their–phone or phones. He also asked whether they were carrying guns, knives, pepper spray or other weapons, and then—after all that, mind you–told them that no more tickets were being issued but they could wait in case there was an opening.
In one case, an elderly man with a serious hearing deficit and a severe limp stood near enough to the guard that they appeared to be cheek to cheek as the guard kept repeating his requests and instructions. Finally the man stepped back and said “yes.” The guard seemed briefly baffled by the affirmative response and the man pulled a knife from his pocket. (Now, you see, this is the point at which it would “be on” if the old fella had decided he was going to take us all hostage at the point of his pocket knife.)
“You have to take it outside,” the guard told him, resulting in a brief stare down, until the old sport hobbled back to the door, opened it a crack, and underhanded the knife onto the sidewalk. Shortly afterward, when he understood that he might be there all afternoon without talking to anyone other than Oscar de la Renta-cop, he left.
Some of the new arrivals waited and I was amused to note that, without the numbers, the guard kept rehearsing their waiting order aloud.
Meanwhile, each time someone new entered the office, as the guard recited his routine cautions regarding telephone silent and concealed weapons, a ripple of laughter spread through those who were waiting for assistance, particularly when after the entire skit was re-enacted, the new entrant wanted only to pick up a form. Questions to Oscar about which resulted in, “What you see is pretty much what you get.”
I’ll bet he’s a hoot at parties.
A sign explained that tax preparation assistance is not available at this location, while the television touted that assistance with income tax preparation was available. We could hear Ethel–maybe it was Mable–going over a guest’s returns line by line. Unfortunately, the man spoke quietly and mumbled, making it difficult to listen in on his conversation. We did hear Mable–or maybe it was Ethel–repeatedly telling her captive to slow down; there was no hurry.
The guard continued to signaled with the door blinds.
While we waited our turn the guard did respond to the question of how many people had been helped so far that day. Four, he said, including the two who were currently being held in the back room.
It was almost 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
Several of the people waiting grumbled that they only had a question that would take less than five minutes, but this well-oiled machine did not provide for triage or personal interaction.
The television screen (which I really wanted to touch only because the sign taped to it instructed us: “Do NOT touch the television.”) displayed the tax payers’ bill of rights. Number two is “You have the right to quality service.” Why, I wondered was I the only one who snorted?
So far, IRS service had failed via the Internet, the telephone and a personal visit across three counties.
While we waited, my granddaughter finally got through to someone on the 800 number. Mirabili dictu. The woman kept asking her about her receipt from filing her taxes. My granddaughter told her that she had filed through an online program and only had a confirmation number for the program. Apparently the woman went to the same school as the security guard, because she simply kept repeating the same questions and responding with the same answers until my granddaughter gave up and hung up.
Chalk up another fail for our beloved IRS.
After about an hour, we decided there had to be a better way the same people were still in the back room a couple of people had left the waiting area and nothing was looking promising.
At this juncture we still haven’t figured out why her taxes can’t be accepted, or why her state-issued ID number isn’t sufficient to identify her, but I wonder whether she would have had so much trouble filing if she owed money instead of anticipating a refund.
She finally was able to file her returns after the 2 ½ drive to an IRS office in Northern Virginia.
I heard that Ethel and Mabel took the guard and ran off to join the TSA.