Monday, February 1, 2010

More reflections on phone information

Although I'm not a big fan of phone calls, I did want to call to make sure I was sending exactly the right documents that would be required to resolve our correspondence audit. And I also wanted to get some insights into how much difficulty a low-income taxpayer might have in navigating the phone interface of the NYS Tax Department.

Upon further investigation and reflection after my experiences this morning, the phone information provided in the audit letter was definitely NOT as helpful as it could have been.

1) Page 7 of our audit letter stated that "If you prefer to resolve your disagreement by phone, call the toll free Personal Income Tax Customer Service Center number given on the enclosed Notice of Taxpayer Rights."

However, the only actual toll free number given on the "enclosed Notice of Taxpayer Rights" is 1-800-462-8100. A taxpayer who attempts to follow the advice given on page 7 will only waste more costly cell phone minutes (toll free doesn't mean free if you're calling from the kind of cell phone plan most of our low income clients have!) only to learn he's reached the number for ordering forms, certainly not the number for resolving an audit disagreement by phone.

2) There is also a NON toll free number given on the above-referenced page: 518-485-6800, but since the toll free version originally pointed out explicitly as the place to call to resolve problems hadn't worked, I assumed that the corresponding toll version wouldn't work either. (I later called the number and it appears that in fact the toll version WOULD have worked! So if only page 7 had pointed the taxpayer to the toll version initially, he might have reached someone who could help him.)

3) Anyway, instead I called the number given on page 8 of the tax audit notice enclosure, the one labelled "If you have questions regarding this notice, call 518-457-5434. That was a number that should have been answered starting at 8 a.m., according to the NY Tax Department website, but as I indicated earlier, when I called at 8:20 a.m., the recording just informed me that the office was closed and I should call back during "normal hours," without actually telling me what those hours were!

These may all seem like minor petty details, but the cost of calling several incorrect numbers or at several incorrect times adds up for the millions of New York taxpayers who have to deal with complying with our tax code.

In our case the audit issue was clear and straightforward, but for a taxpayer with a more complicated issue, and perhaps with only a limited number of minutes left on his phone plan and no money to buy more, these kinds of issues DO add additional stress!

And, the fact is that if our tax code (both federal and state) were simpler, taxpayers would not need to be wasting nearly as much of their time AND of government employee time AND running up phone bills on both ends dealing with all these bed buffaloes in our tax code.

It's not the fault of the NYS Tax Department that the tax code is so complicated, but the audit letter could at least avoid wasting taxpayer time and cell phone minutes by clearly directing taxpayers to the correct phone number to call and the correct time to call those phone numbers. Those misdirected phone calls that come in at the wrong time or to the wrong number run up the state's phone bill as well.

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