WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service said Friday that its telephone "assistors" are giving even more wrong answers than last year, and it promised to waive penalties for taxpayers who can document erroneous information.
Calls to the IRS toll-free numbers this year are producing answers that would lead to errors on taxpayer returns 30.8% of the time, the agency said. At this time last year, the error rate was about 28%.
"We are not pleased . . . with our performance with respect to accuracy," said Robert LeBaube, IRS director of taxpayer services.
LeBaube said the agency will not penalize a taxpayer for an error caused by faulty advice from an IRS employee if the taxpayer can provide the name of the employee, the question asked and the date of the wrong answer. The IRS took a similar stance last year.
LeBaube said the massive changes in the 1986 tax overhaul--which was hailed by many as a simplification--and the sheer number of tax bills enacted must carry a lot of the blame for confusion among IRS employees.
"Since 1976, there have been 138 public laws modifying the Internal Revenue Code," LeBaube said. "Since the Tax Reform Act of 1986, there have been 13 public laws changing the code and in 1988 alone there were seven public laws affecting the code."
The General Accounting Office tested IRS employees during the 1988 return-filing season and found that the agency provided wrong answers to 36% of test questions. One of the main problems was the failure of IRS employees known as assistors to probe callers for additional information, the GAO found.
The IRS has 5,000 assistors, many of them part-time employees, answering taxpayers' telephone calls this filing season. About 1,500 of that number are new to the job. The workers, who earn from $6.50 to $11.70 an hour, must have at least a high school education and undergo a minimum of five weeks of training.
"They are not accountants or tax lawyers," LeBaube noted. "I don't think the economy could support giving us 5,000 tax accountants" to answer calls.
Through last weekend, the telephone system had received 15.5 million calls since Jan. 1, compared with 16.9 million for the same period a year ago.
Although fewer people are calling with questions this year, the IRS Tele-Tax system, which provides taped answers on more than 150 specific subjects, has received 7.8 million calls--more than triple the figure at this time last year.
In an effort to improve the toll-free system, an IRS team is making about 20,000 calls with test questions.