TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Tess Vigeland: Are you watching the calendar? April 15 arrives on Thursday. So if you’re not done yet, it’s time to get out the 1040, the calculator and a bottle of Excedrin. Of course, our role is to help out in any way we can, so we decided to bring in the ultimate expert: the Tax Man himself.
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Doug Shulman, welcome to the program.
Doug Shulman: Thank you Tess.
Vigeland: So, how’d your taxes go this year, are you all done?
Shulman: I’m all done, yes.
Vigeland: And are you a refund guy? You like getting that check back?
Shulman: I try to pay just on the dime, not too much, not too little.
Vigeland: Well, of course, that’s what we in personal finance always advise. So, you have said publicly that you don’t do your own taxes. What do you think that says about our tax code that even you need help?
Shulman: This is something that’s gotten a bunch of attention. Let me be clear with what I said: It’s not that I don’t do my own taxes, it’s that I’ve used a preparer for many years. So, what that means is somebody organizes my information for me — because I’m very busy — sends it to me, and I spend a lot of time going line by line with that person over my taxes. And as IRS commissioner, I’m fully accountable and responsible for making sure I pay every single cent I owe.
Vigeland: So do you like your accountant, and can I have his number?
Shulman: Absolutely, I love him. He’s great, he was a referral. I won’t put his name out of over the air.
Vigeland: OK, fair enough. The taxpayer advocate told Congress that the IRS needs more manpower, and I’m sure you would always like to have more folks helping you out. Back in January, your agency said that it hoped to answer about 70 percent of the calls to its help line. Any improvements?
Shulman: Yeah. We answer well above 70 percent of the phone calls that come in. This year, it’s maybe 1 percent of the people during, only during, peak times are getting a busy signal. My goal is to answer every call immediately. We don’t have the resources to do that, but if people are willing to wait on the line a little bit during the busy season, they’ll get an answer from the IRS and they’ll get an accurate answer.
Vigeland: I am told that the IRS has always taken a few steps to be more of a nice guy, in light of what’s going on with the economy. How are you implementing those changes?
Shulman: We have a couple new programs. There’s always been a program where, if you can’t meet basic living expenses and you have a tax debt, you can settle your debt for less than 100 percent. The old rules were, we looked at your last three years’ average income to determine if you could pay. We recognize some people lost their jobs, so they might have had a high income before, but they still can’t pay. So we changed the rules this year and said we’re just going to look at your current income.
We also are having 1,000 Saturday open houses, where anyone who’s got an issue with the IRS that is unresolved, can call, make an appointment. We’ll make sure all the right people are there, whether it’s a collections person or an exam person, and our goal is to totally resolve your issues, so you can walk away feeling like you don’t have something lingering and hanging over your head.
Vigeland: What would be your main piece of advice this weekend for folks who are rushing to get things done by Thursday?
Shulman: First of all, you should electronically file and get a direct deposit. If you do, you’ll get your refund within 10 days. Second is, even if you can’t pay everything you owe, file a return and then give us a call or attach a note to the return and we can work through issues with people — put them on an installment agreement, work them through a settlement. The last thing people want to do is disappear.
Vigeland: All right, and because I do have you here on the show, I have to ask you, what’s it like being the tax man?
Shulman: Well, it’s great for me. The misconception about the IRS is that we wake up everyday and the only thing we do is show up at people’s houses or write them a letter and say, “Pay up.” The reality is, we serve hundreds of millions of people every year. We run a big complex operation. So I think of myself like the CEO of a big financial service institution that needs to keep the machine up and running, needs to serve people and then needs to do our collection job.
Vigeland: Anything surprisingly fun about that title? I don’t know, people come up to you and single that Beatles’ tune?
Shulman: Everybody loves the Beatles’ tune and I love the Beatles, so we try to keep it going around here during tax time.
Vigeland: Doug Shulman is the IRS commissioner. Thanks so much and happy tax season to you.
Shulman: Thank you, Tess.
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