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Internal changes: IRS attempts to create a good-guy image.

This is Phil Beasley with the IRS calling," says the voice on the other end of the phone.

Gulp.

Even though the reporter is expecting a return call from the IRS, the very mention of those three letters is enough to put a lump in the throat.

"A lot of people are afraid to come see us," says Beasley, 36, the public affairs officer for the Internal Revenue Service in Arkansas. "I just don't want people to be afraid of us. We don't bite."

District Director Lee R. Monks, 48, says, "The first thing people think when they get a letter from the IRS is, 'Oh my God, what have I done?'"

The IRS is trying to change its image.

"What you're seeing now is an IRS that is more interested in ... the taxpayer as a customer," Monks says.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the focus was on enforcement. Today, the agency is not only trying to enforce tax laws, it is making an attempt to educate and assist taxpayers.

IRS officials aren't oblivious to the fact that since the agency's formation in 1913, the IRS has developed a reputation as a somehow evil part of the federal government.

Of course, tax collectors have never been popular people.

"Look at the biblical example," Beasley says. "They were the outcasts."

Monks agrees.

He says, "When you're invited to a cocktail party ..."

"If you're invited," Beasley adds quickly.

Monks says he usually is introduced with the warning, "Look out for this guy, he's from the IRS."

That's why entire divisions within the agency are designed to help taxpayers and create a new image for IRS employees who still get funny looks at parties.

A New Kind Of Government

At 700 West Capitol Ave. in downtown Little Rock, the IRS and other federal agencies are housed at the Federal Building.

It looks like a federal building.

A cold concrete exterior opens to a bland inside.

The IRS office on the first floor looks like one would expect an IRS office to look.

There are rows and rows of gray cubicles. There are stacks of 1040 forms and Schedule Cs and Schedule Ds.

But Monks is particularly proud of the information area because of its accessibility to the "customers." He says those who work in that area give a good first impression of the IRS.

"What we want to do is present people with a better picture of the IRS," Monks says.

On the national level, the IRS is attempting to portray itself in a new light as well.

Arkansas is implementing some of those national programs more quickly than other states.

For instance, Arkansas is one of about a dozen states that has donated an IRS employee to teach accounting for a year at a historically black college or university.

Carlee Adams, a North Little Rock agent, was chosen to teach at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

When the academic year is completed, the IRS will assess the effect of the program. Agency officials hope it will generate more minority applicants.

"It's a way for the IRS to spread its message," Monks says.

The IRS is interested in getting its message out to students before negative attitudes about the agency develop.

IRS employees go to junior high schools to teach students why government taxation evolved and how it works so the students won't fear the agency.

There are seminars that target taxpayers. And there are workshops for practitioners.

Part of the we-are-your-friend attitude is the result of a disastrous filing season in 1985 at service centers across the country.

Monks says the IRS formerly stressed productivity at all costs. When a public relations nightmare occurred -- thousands of returns were handled improperly -- the agency was forced to examine its policies.

One of the most effective tools the IRS has for assisting taxpayers is the problem resolution officer, known within the agency as a PRO.

If a taxpayer has a problem that remains unresolved after two or three attempts to correct it, a PRO can be contacted to facilitate the problem's resolution.

"It makes your job easier because you have someone at the IRS who will listen to you," says Carl E. Warren, who has a Little Rock accounting firm and serves as chairman of the federal and the state taxations committee of the Arkansas Society of Certified Public Accountants.

Warren says there is a new openness at the IRS.

"Their image has changed in the past five years," Warren says. "They have an open ear, and they will listen to what you suggest to them."

Depends On Who You Ask

It seems everyone knows an IRS horror story, whether it happened to the person himself or to a mother or a best friend.

"We're the most efficient collector," Monks says.

That's why returns often go straight to pay for delinquent child support or student loans. By law, the IRS often must withhold tax returns to cover delinquent payments. That task lends to its reputation.

The IRS has to play the bad guy.

"People aren't going to have a good image," Monks admits.

In some instances, though, overzealous employees or bureaucratic red tape -- Monks calls them "functional barriers" -- do their part to give the IRS a bad name.

Although Monks admits there are problems within the IRS, it's also easy to detect a defensive streak when he talks about the agency.

Monks, who has worked with the IRS since he was 23, spouts agency statistics of which he is obviously proud.

For instance, the IRS takes in 90 percent of the country's revenue each year. This year, the total will be $1 trillion with only $6 billion in expenditures.

"That's a pretty good return on investment," Monks says.

Beasley, who has worked for the IRS for three years, addresses the stereotypes more easily.

"It's the last place in the world I wanted to work," he says. "My daddy, when he found out, well, he got real cold."

Now, Beasley says of his colleagues, "They're here and live in the community. They could be your neighbor."

But people don't think of an IRS agent as neighborly.

As hard as the IRS tries, it could take more than classes and a renewed sense of openness to change people's minds.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Internal Revenue Service in Arkansas
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 21, 1991
Words:1044
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