IRS aids taxpayers via pamphlets, telephones, and self-help groups
Boston — The battle of taxpayer assistance, part two, has been fought. Congress has spoken. Appropriations committees in both houses have restored 1 ,675 agents and $50 million that the Reagan administration wanted to delete from the Internal Revenue Service budget.
This is the second year Congress and the administration have had a showdown over how much free assistance Uncle Sam should give Jack and Jill Taxpayer, and for the second time Congress has pretty much had its way.
''My impression is that Congress has spoken definitively,'' says Erwin Hytner , a staff member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He and other congressional observers don't expect another go-around during the 1984 budget process.
So what kind of federal help will be available as Americans race the April 15 deadline?
Taxpayers will be able to ask IRS agents their tax questions by means of toll-free telephone lines. (To find the number in your area, call (800) 555-1212 . Because Congress restored funding for the lines at the eleventh hour, the numbers were not printed on the tax-form packages that have been mailed.) Hours will vary with locality, but telephone help will generally be available from 8: 30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, now through April. There is general but not unanimous feeling that toll-free lines are one of the most cost-effective aids the IRS provides.
But for those wishing to look their tax advisers in the eye, IRS offices are sponsoring ''self-help'' groups. In a classroomlike setting, an agent will talk a group through the tax form, line by line, answering questions as they arise.
''There are always new changes in the law,'' IRS spokesman Ernie Acosta says. An agent taking a self-help group through the form will be able to point out places where last year's tax form won't be a reliable guide to filling out this year's form. One example is the child-care credit. Last year it was calculated at a flat rate; now it's being figured on a sliding scale, according to the parents' income.
As a concession to the schedules of working people, self-help classes are to be held evenings and on weekends, as well as during the day, this year - and in such places as libraries and schools. One-on-one service for walk-in clients at IRS offices is to be limited to procedural questions, although you can pick up various free publications at these offices, too, of course. Mr. Acosta stresses the efforts his agency has made over recent years to make these guides easier to understand.
In times past, the legions of befuddled taxpayers could take their forms to an IRS office and get agents to fill them out for them. As of last year, that is no longer possible except for specific classes of taxpayers, such as the handicapped.
The IRS has two programs to recruit and train members of church, civic, and other groups as volunteer tax preparers. They are known as Tax Counseling for the Elderly and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
Each group of volunteer tax preparers can have its training tailored to the specific needs of those it will serve. Mr. Acosta cites as an example a group of Spanish-speaking VITA volunteers in Washington, D.C. This group helps a number of domestic servants working for embassy families. These people, with their diplomatic immunity, are exempt from US tax laws, and don't provide their servants with W-2 forms. Their domestics need to be shown how to cope.
Those who don't speak English may be particularly in need of help through the VITA program or individually from IRS agents. Publication 579S takes Spanish speakers through the form 1040, but there is no equivalent publication in other languages.
A more controversial IRS aid is Teletax, a program of recorded statements on various tax questions available over the telephone. Yes, this is the one you've heard so much about. To use Teletax, you need a push-button phone. If you're among the two-thirds of Americans who still dial instead of punching, hang up on Teletax and read on to the explanation of ''Tax Dial'' below.
If you do want to use Teletax, go to a bank or post office for a Teletax brochure, which explains the different topics the recordings address and the three-digit number of each. To hear the recording, call the local Teletax number and (here comes the part you need the push-button phone for) then punch the three digits of the recording you wish to hear.
Teletax has some advantages over some other programs - consistency and around-the-clock availability. ''But basically, it's like hearing someone read a paragraph out of one of those publications,'' says a congressional staffer. ''If you can't make it out by reading it over and over again in the book, it's unlikely that you'll get it just by hearing someone read it to you.''
Teletax is what the administration originally proposed to take the place of IRS employees answering individual tax questions over the phone. The toll-free lines were to be restricted to answering procedural questions like, ''Where do I send my return?'' Now Teletax is seen as a supplement to advice from a live human being. There are local Teletax numbers in 25 cities across the country.
For those with dial phones, Tax Dial is being tried out in a number of cities. Armed with a brochure, taxpayers dial the local Tax Dial number and ask the operator for the three-digit number of the recording they want.
Over the years the IRS has favored generous taxpayer-assistance. They helped 41.4 million taxpayers in fiscal 1982.
''It saves work for them,'' says Mr. Hytner of the Ways and Means Committee. And if the IRS doesn't provide information, taxpayers may go to other sources, perhaps getting information which ''encourages taxpayers to evade responsibilities,'' he says. ''Taxpayer assistance also enhances the IRS's position with the general public.''
It may be argued that anything to avoid the psychological stress of tax time is a good thing. ''Nobody likes taxes, and nobody likes filling out forms of any kind,'' says Mr. Acosta. ''Putting these two together creates an enormous block for some people.''
But Thomas Bloch, president of tax operations at H & R Block Inc. in Kansas City, expresses some doubts about the quality of the help the IRS gives. ''The IRS man doesn't have an incentive'' to figure someone's lowest possible tax liability and dig out every legitimate deduction, he says. He also has some ''big reservations'' about the assistance one gets from IRS self-help groups: ''For a lot of people it does not guarantee a complete return. But I do think people by and large know what they're getting into'' when they take advantage of free government aid.
He expects the recession to cut into his business this year - people who have been unemployed all year may not have to file a return. But Mr. Bloch expects recent changes in the law, particularly under the Economic Recovery Act of 1981, to bring lots of taxpayers, do-it-yourselfers in years past, to his door - more than canceling out the recession.