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TAKE THREE / Three Views of the Southland | AL MARTINEZ

The Tax Man Smileth

March 27, 1998|AL MARTINEZ

In the old days, when you went in for a tax audit you were required to bring all of your records, a tax lawyer, a CPA and two large men with hairy arms who walked with the palms of their hands facing backward.

Well, actually, tax records were the only requirement; the others were for your personal protection. It was well known that IRS offices were staffed by human barracudas ready to eat you right down to the femur.

But that was then and this is now.

Today, due to the ripping it got in front of a U.S. Senate committee, the IRS is user-friendly. Its employees are no longer promoted according to the number of lives they destroy or the businesses they plunge into bankruptcy.

Now it's all please and thank you and don't worry, we'll work it out, and here's a big hug to keep you warm on the way home.

Death and taxes shared the same emotional bed until hearings of the Senate Finance Committee last fall found the Internal Revenue Service guilty of a whole rap sheet full of taxpayer abuses.

IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti came out of the sessions looking like a dog caught stealing bacon off the kitchen sink and promised that things would be different from then on. Well, they are.

Among many improvements, including longer hours and representation at America's favorite gathering places (malls, not liquor stores), improved customer service seems the most obvious.

The IRS has instructed its employees in the positive quality of, well, spunk.

*

I first heard of the direct application of the IRS' new Luv-Ya Program from Calabasas tax preparer George Lippert. He is normally an unflappable kind of guy who for 20 years has been handling my most blatant idiocies with an amazing sense of tranquillity. Nothing fazed George.

But on Tuesday, when I paid him my annual visit, he was sitting at his desk in a state of shock. When I asked why, he replied that an IRS representative had just been kind to him.

What happened, as I understand it, was that George had called on the man for answers to questions posed by a client. The tax guy not only answered the questions clearly and patiently but then asked in a tone as sweet as a baby's kiss, "Do you have any other clients who need help?"

"I almost passed out," George managed to say to me, and he was still shaking his head in disbelief when I left. It was like he'd just seen the Virgin Mary in his coffee cup.

I discussed this with Keith Kimball, an IRS spokesman in L.A., who assured me that it was a New IRS today, maybe not as warm as a teddy bear but close.

To test this altered attitude, I decided to telephone customer service anonymously and ask the stupidest questions I could come up with and see what their response might be. The questions were:

1--Is it true that victims of multiple marriages need no longer pay taxes? 2--Is it true that if you simply send in a check for $1,000 no forms are required? 3--Are pets now considered a legal deduction if you've had them for more than five years? 4--Is it so that each Jan. 1 one may declare one's own tax deadline date? 5--Are dates that end in sex deductible?

*

I dialed the 800 number, fought my way through a series of 30 menu options, waited for 11 minutes listening to music from the "Nutcracker Suite" and then got Miss O'Flaherty. That's not her real name, but she's a real person.

I have called IRS reps in the past and have gotten pissed-off people who hated me, but Miss O'Flaherty was not among them. When I said at first I had thought she was a recording, she replied sprightly, "Nope, it's just little me!"

Little me? I pictured Tara Lipinski smiling into the phone, full of spunk and innocence, ready to fly into a triple axel to please me. That's Lipinski, by the way, not Lewinsky, though she might fly into a triple axel to please me too.

Miss O'Flaherty answered the dumbest questions with a cheerful "Who on Earth told you that?" and "You bet you have to pay taxes!" and laughed when I asked about dogs, multiple marriages and first dates.

Sounding a little like my sister Emily, the one who prays for me, she even told me about her husband, a retired carpenter, and how he had to declare his small pension, and I'm sure she'd have told me about her grandchildren had I indicated an interest.

I tried sounding as stupid as possible which, it has been pointed out, isn't difficult for me to do. Nonetheless, Miss O'Flaherty treated me with respect and kindness. At one point, I thought she might offer to drive over and fix me hot cocoa, so deep was her concern for my welfare.

The IRS has changed, all right. That doesn't mean, by the way, that I'm any less terrified of a tax audit. Their new auditors may be ordained ministers trained in grief counseling, but I still want none of that whole process.

I do, however, want to thank Miss O'Flaherty for her help and sweetness. She loves me just the way I am.

*

Al Martinez can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com

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