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IRS Offers Help if You Can Get Past Screening

November 10, 1986|S. J. DIAMOND

Very, very quietly, on page 19 of its main taxpayer instruction booklet, the Internal Revenue Service announces a gift from the gods--"a Problem Resolution Program" to help with problems that taxpayers "have been unable to resolve through the normal channels." Need someone to "take responsibility for your problem and ensure that it receives proper attention?" Just call "and ask for Problem Resolution assistance."

Many taxpayers are ignorant of its availability. "What is it? Something like a help line?" asks one taxpayer. Another lost his initial interest on hearing that he must start with the local IRS information line: "I've never been successful getting them on the phone," he sighed.

Odd, when the program has been around since 1977. Taxpayer service--itself supposed to handle taxpayer inquiries and problems--was then six years old, but "it was evident that some things were not being taken care of," says Jack Petrie, the national ombudsman for the IRS. Indeed, he says, a half-dozen congressional bills threatened intervention into IRS treatment of taxpayers, and "we thought we would jump the gun and do it ourselves."

Limited Public Contact

To provide "advocacy" for the taxpayer, the Problem Resolution Program, or PRP, was created, threaded through the IRS' divisions. There are supervising Problem Resolution Officers in each of the IRS' seven regions, 64 districts and 10 service centers. But these have limited public contact, being also responsible for reviewing all procedures and materials going out to taxpayers and for analyzing taxpayer problems in an effort to identify those that are "systemic," or recurrent system-wide.

The taxpayer's greater interest is probably the PRP's handling of individual problems-- 548,000 this past fiscal year, most commonly involving second and third notices demanding payments already made, questions about employer federal tax deposits, "entity problems" (incorrect Social Security numbers or unknown names) or refunds not received on time. This work is done by PRP "caseworkers" in each IRS division--collection, examination, taxpayer service, appeals, etc.

Taxpayers wanting this special help must still call the same old toll-free number offered for any and all "taxpayer assistance." Those "first-line assistors," says Cheryl Palmer, Los Angeles district Problem Resolution Officer, "are trained to probe the inquiry, trying to find out if they qualify for Problem Resolution." If they do, the inquiry is written up and passed on to a PRP caseworker in the appropriate area and division, who should contact the taxpayer within 10 days.

Rules to Qualify

The rules for qualification seem very specific, if incomprehensible: e.g.,"REFUNDS--A second or subsequent refund inquiry received 90 days after the first filing of an original or amended return or a claim. NOTE: An inquiry received prior to the 90 days should not be counted in applying the criteria." This somehow means that a refund problem qualifies for PRP attention if the taxpayer has filed his return, heard nothing for 90 days, made an inquiry and still heard nothing after 45 days.

The taxpayer also qualifies if he has called or written (on something other than refunds) and received no response to his inquiry within 45 days, or if he has received a third demand for payment on something about which he made an inquiry and never received attention or appropriate action. But there are several exclusions, including one disqualifying the taxpayer if "an appropriate response has previously been provided," whatever that may be.

Once reached, PRP caseworkers have some clout within the IRS, because "problem resolution is a top priority program," says Petrie. They have on-line computer access to taxpayer records, so they can check whether payments have been received or refunds sent, and can call whoever has been or should be involved in the case. They may, of course, request more copies of canceled checks, audit adjustments or other documents but they "strive to have the matter resolved within 30 days," says Palmer.

Their authority, however, has limits. "We intercede to make sure someone pays attention," says Palmer, "but we don't override the decisions of the division involved. We can't be a second line of appeal." At the same time, says Petrie, the PRP as taxpayer advocate does "have an appeals function. If we disagree with a proposed deficiency, or if a penalty is too harsh, the Problem Resolution Officers may speak out for the taxpayer, even if they don't have final authority."

If a PRP caseworker seems unhelpful, the taxpayer, says Palmer, "should talk to that caseworker's manager," and subsequently go beyond the manager to the Problem Resolution Officer in the district, region, or service center. She points out, however, that "the calls I get are usually from people who just refuse to believe something."

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