No one expects the federal government to be a model of efficiency. But with a projected deficit of nearly $600 billion this year, you'd think officials would do everything possible to help people pay their taxes.
Kathleen Klein thought so. All the Tustin resident wanted to do was schedule an appointment for her and her husband to have some questions answered by an Internal Revenue Service official about their retirement accounts.
Thoughtfully, she even waited until tax season was over before seeking a little of the IRS' time.
What Klein received in return was a bureaucratic runaround worthy of a cable company (I'm thinking of the recent recording of a Comcast worker bullying a customer who wanted to cancel his service).
Klein reached out to the tax agency by phone, by online chat, by email. She got nowhere.
Worse, she eventually was told that IRS personnel don't answer people's tax questions from April 16 until the following January — which is flat-out untrue.
"All I wanted was confirmation from a real, live human being that I understood the law," Klein, 69, told me. "That doesn't seem like too much for a taxpayer to ask."
It doesn't — and the IRS wants everyone to know that.
"Generally speaking, if you want help, you can come into an office and get help," said Raphael Tulino, a spokesman for the agency.
Klein wanted to know whether her and her husband's individual retirement accounts could be combined with their 401(k)s. She also wanted to know whether there'd be penalties for not withdrawing enough money from each account annually.
Klein said she found the relevant IRS document — Publication 590 — online and pored over the many pages. It appeared that IRAs and 401(k)s can be combined, although there are some exceptions, and the rules for minimum annual withdrawals differ for different types of accounts.
This left more questions than answers. So Klein tried to make an appointment for her and her hearing-impaired husband to meet with someone at the IRS' Santa Ana office. She called the office's number and discovered that she couldn't get past the automated switchboard.
An email address was included on the recording, she said, "but it was so garbled I couldn't understand it."
So she went to the IRS.gov website and clicked the link for its "interactive tax assistant." This launched an electronic chat with someone named Nina, followed by a supervisor named Vicky.
Both said they could provide the phone number of the Santa Ana office, which Klein already had, but couldn't provide the email address. Klein was advised to leave a message with the office and hope someone called her back.
Turns out you can't leave messages — see a pattern emerging? But after listening to the recording five more times, Klein managed to suss out the garbled email address.
Her message was answered the same day with an email from the Santa Ana office requesting more information for setting up an appointment. She provided it.
Two weeks passed.
Then came an email from a senior official at the Santa Ana office saying that "tax law questions are only answered by an IRS representative from Jan. 2 through the due date of Form 1040, generally April 15."
"If you need help outside this time period," the official wrote, Klein's best bet would be to look for answers on the IRS.gov website.
"They're saying that if you have a problem between April 16 and Jan. 1, you're out of luck," Klein told me.
She asked the IRS official to send her a written copy of the policy stating that taxpayers are on their own for eight months of the year. No response ever came.
Maybe that's because there isn't one.
Tulino, the agency spokesman, declined to comment on the email Klein received from the Santa Ana official. And he reiterated the IRS' preference that people seek answers online.
But Tulino said taxpayers can indeed get help from agency workers throughout the year. "Any taxpayer can come in and get answers," he said.
The IRS just isn't going to make it easy.
This isn't merely bureaucratic intransigence, although that may be a factor. The IRS' look-but-don't-touch stance is a factor primarily of ongoing budget cuts.
Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives seem determined to cripple the agency and drastically curtail its enforcement powers. As a result, many services have been pared back.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in April that budget cuts probably will mean that about a third of people calling the agency simply won't get through. He also said waits of three hours aren't unheard of at field offices.
"Essentially, the federal government is losing billions in revenue collection to achieve budget savings of a few hundred million dollars," he said.
Tulino said it is possible to make an appointment to visit an IRS office. But Klein's experience shows how challenging that can be.
Your best bet is to look online for your nearest office and just drop by during business hours. There'll be a wait, maybe a long one, so bring a good book.
Tulino apologized for what Klein went through. "That's not something we want to happen," he said.
If so, then the IRS can clearly do a better job of informing taxpayers of their options and not making interaction with the agency like a chapter from "Catch-22."
And a quick thought for our friends in Congress: Many people want to pay their fair share of taxes to the government. Putting obstacles in their way is self-defeating at best, an act of gross stupidity at worst.
Klein said that after I roused the IRS from its April-January hibernation, she received a call from an official to schedule an appointment to visit the Santa Ana office.
See? That wasn't so hard.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.