Taxpayer Advocacy Panel volunteer listens to gripes about IRSGriping about taxes is a time-honored tradition in American life. Nobody likes filing, much less paying them. So why would anyone offer to listen — unpaid, no less — to taxpayers' complaints about the IRS? Just ask Lee Battershell.
By: Claudia Buck, McClatchy Newspapers
Griping about taxes is a time-honored tradition in American life. Nobody likes filing, much less paying them.
So why would anyone offer to listen — unpaid, no less — to taxpayers' complaints about the IRS?
Just ask Lee Battershell.
A CPA in private practice, Battershell recently started serving California on the federal Taxpayer Advocacy Panel, known as TAP. Set up in 2002, it acts as a sounding board for individual taxpayers, fielding their concerns, suggestions — and yes, all those gripes.
Three months into her three-year term, Battershell sat down with the The Sacramento Bee to share what's on taxpayers' minds.
Q. Listening to people complain about taxes and the IRS isn't most people's idea of a leisure activity. What motivated you to take this volunteer, unpaid post?
A. I see the win-win for both sides. The IRS is trying to be more taxpayer-friendly. ... I see my role in the middle, bringing them together. The taxpaying public knows the IRS has put forth this effort, and it engenders a different feeling about government.
Q. What kind of calls have you dealt with in your first three months?
A. They're all different. I had a woman call me who hadn't filed taxes in three years because she couldn't afford to pay a tax preparer. I got her in touch with a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) site. She was so relieved.
In another case, I had a CPA complain about filing a 1033 extension for a client. The tax regulations said he had to request the extension from an IRS district director, and he was frantically trying to locate one. (Turns out) the IRS hasn't had a "district director" in 10 years. He (subsequently) found 740 references in the tax regulations to "district director." So that's one I submitted for (TAP) to take a look at.
Q. You started as an IRS auditor in the 1970s when there weren't a lot of women. You've also been a federal auditor for the Department of the Interior, working from Alaska to Montana Indian reservations. Any interesting tales from the front lines?
A. One of the scariest moments was in Auburn (Calif.). I was working in the Sacramento IRS office, and we'd gotten word that a gold dealer was dealing drugs and laundering the money through his store. I went up there by myself to do the audit. He was a big man, very intimidating, and I was taken into the back room, which was filled with guns. They sat me down with the company's books in front of a two-way mirror. I could hear them laughing. Then I heard a gun click. That's when I shut the books and said, "I'll meet you at your accountant's office."
In retrospect, I probably took chances where I should have had backup with me. But I wanted to prove I was tough. Back then I was only the third woman in the IRS office, and you wanted to prove that you're just as strong as these men. Today, I wouldn't do that.
Q. In the last 25 years, the U.S. tax code has become increasingly bloated. Is TAP playing any role in getting tax regulations streamlined?
A. The complexity has just intensified with so many different layers. Even something like the EITC (earned income tax credit for low-income workers) — just figuring out all the exceptions can be every bit as complex as some corporate returns. So many professional tax preparers don't even want to get involved with it. ... (TAP) can play a role in streamlining and pointing out where tax regulations need to make some changes.
Q. Recently, President Obama cited the need to reform the federal tax system. Was that welcome news?
A. When you simplify the tax code, there are always trade-offs. You take away a lot of exemptions and itemized deductions. That means we will end up paying more. In the Reagan era, he simplified the tax code and brought tax rates down, but people lost a lot of deductions. We've had (recently) historically low rates; if we get rid of a lot of exemptions, I see taxes going up.
Q. Is there any changing the public's perception that IRS agents are out to get you?
A. Anytime someone wants to get into your pocket, it's intimidating. In the past, there were times when the IRS could be heavy-handed. But the changes I'm seeing make me glad I'm part of this. ... Today, if you owe $10,000 or less in taxes, you can get installment payments relatively easily. That would never have occurred back in the '70s. You had to go through a lot of hoops.
The fact that they're listening to taxpayers (is encouraging). Whenever you talk to an IRS person, they give their name. That was not true in the 1970s. We were encouraged to stay anonymous because someone might come looking for you.
Q. Do you feel TAP's recommendations are taken seriously?
A. Yes, in fact, I'm seeing them implemented just in the three months since I've started. The IRS is asking us to take a look at the letters they send out. ... One of them came piled in with so many different IRS notices it detracted from the message. Getting a letter from the IRS scares you half to death anyway. If you get a single, straightforward letter, it's so much easier. ...
They're going out with more easily understandable wording, they're trying to keep from using so many acronyms or at least spell them out. (In a recent audit letter), I was amazed at the clarity. I had never seen the penalties and interest spelled out so well.
This program is still in its infancy. But I can't think of too many countries that do this for their taxpaying public.
(Buck is the assistant business editor of The Sacramento Bee. Personal Finance Notebook answers questions about money matters, tapping a roster of experts for advice on navigating the often-confusing world of personal finance. Submit questions to email@example.com or P.O. Box 15779 Sacramento, CA 95852.