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We Work For You!

It's the taming of the last great evil bureaucracy, as the IRS holds its first open house for taxpayers

By Joel Stein

Time cover

(TIME, November 24) -- You don't want to pay taxes to a smiling man with a name tag and a button that says we work for you. You want a Grand Slam breakfast from that guy. You want to pay your taxes to a balding, bespectacled old curmudgeon, preferably overweight and incapable of making eye contact. If you're going to get milked by the government, you want to walk away feeling completely screwed.

But that's not the way it felt last Saturday when the Internal Revenue Service inaugurated its bubbly new monthly Problem Solving Day service. At 33 sites across the country, IRS auditors had their name tags and their best behavior on display as they sacrificed part of their weekend to help the taxpayers. And though it felt earnest and went over well with the people who came to be served, there may be nothing sadder than watching one of the world's last great bureaucracies give up its well-earned reputation as a hard-ass.

At the Manhattan headquarters of the IRS, visitors were greeted at the door by a well-bred Southerner, district director Charles Baugh, who did everything he could to make them feel at home. Upstairs, IRS employees outnumbered concerned taxpayers, which necessitated still more flesh pressing. All those smiles and handshakes and salutations felt out of character. It was like having Kerri Strug as your pit boss.

Ever since Congress stuck it to the IRS in brutal hearings this fall, the agency has been making a concerted effort to crawl out of the 1950s. It fished in the private sector to hire a new commissioner. It took to referring to taxpayers as customers. It has even managed to serve up what may be the government's best Website--the Digital Daily--which touts Problem Solving Day as "a new way to work with taxpayers to provide effective relief from the headache, fever, and that all-over achy feeling that accompanies long-standing tax problems."

But vestiges of the pre-perestroika era remained on Saturday. Upon check-in, you were issued an index card that was either pink and read EXAM in Magic Marker or was purple and tagged COLLECTION. Then, despite the fact that the place was crawling with agents, you were directed to wait your turn in a row of empty chairs. When your name was called, you were passed through a metal detector and ferried upstairs to an undecorated 6-by-6 cubicle. There you met the agent who would pore over dot-matrix printouts of your financial woes.

Most people came away happier than when they arrived. Only about half actually got their Problem Solved, but most felt they had at least been heard. In fact, the place at times took on the flavor of a giant interpersonal counseling session in which the phrase "the system" was invoked more than on any day since Abbie Hoffman died. People vented--largely about the IRS phone system's automated help line, sometimes about the constitutionality of collecting taxes--and IRS agents listened, nodded sympathetically and jotted notes.

David Costa, a 50-year-old construction worker who has been fighting the IRS since 1988 over the $29,291 in back taxes he owes, sat down with agent Peter Salinger. "I watch C-SPAN," said Costa by way of introduction, "so I'm really afraid of you guys." Salinger spoke with Costa for 45 minutes, patiently answering his questions and offering help in the form of cheery phrases, such as "This is a new form they came out with in January" and "There's a form to fill out for that--I believe it's 83-79." Through the fog, Costa began to see his options: "So if I got divorced it would be a different matter? For $30,000? Gee whiz..." Except for one foolish moment when Costa, swept away by all the goodwill, asked if he could have some coffee (Salinger: "Uh, no"), it all went pretty well. In the end, of course, Costa still owed $29,291, but he felt better about it.

Nancy Killefer, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, flew up from Washington to see how the Manhattan taxpayers were faring and was relieved by the low turnout and camp-registration atmosphere. "When I get something in the mail from the IRS, I just pay it," she confesses. "I don't have time. But if I knew I could call in and not be put on hold forever, I'd call."

Despite all the hype, and all the anti-IRS hysteria, only 5,000 taxpayers nationwide called in advance for appointments, and there were not a lot of drop-bys. Perhaps more will come in April. For now, however, it seems the generous offer to spend your Saturday with an IRS agent doesn't hold that much appeal.

In the end, Problem Solving Day seemed to do more to boost the morale of the agency than that of the taxpayers. But if the result is a friendlier, less hostile IRS, it might be worth it. Tom Quigley, an IRS public-affairs officer, showed up at the Manhattan office with an IRS flag he had specially made for the occasion. "Actually, I made two and one was absconded--maybe to burn," he said. And then, remembering the spirit of the day, he added quickly, "Though it might look nice in a college dorm." It's not quite the adrenaline rush the Revenue boys got after bringing down Al Capone, but it's a start.

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