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So I got this letter from the IRS and…
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “It has truly been the greatest pleasure and privilege in my life to read your posts on Ricochet and I’m so sorry that you won’t be writing any more of them. By the way, what are the visiting hours at Leavenworth?” Okay, not all of you are thinking that. Or, maybe only one of you is thinking that (Hi, Mom!).
Well, that’s not exactly what the letter indicated. The letter stated that I owe exactly seventeen dollars for social security taxes. To be honest, I didn’t know the IRS handled social security taxes, so that bit of knowledge won first prize in the “learn something new every day” competition. The letter itself was woefully lacking in any other information and the biggest piece of missing information was how in the world I could possibly owe seventeen dollars in social security taxes.
You see, I work for the Federal government and have worked for them for a really long time. Back when I started my Federal tenure, all new employees were put into something called the Civil Service Retirement System, which is basically a pension system that doesn’t pay into social security. A year after I started, they started a new system called the Federal Employees Retirement System that was tied to social security, but all employees that started with CSRS got to stay in CSRS if they chose to. I decided to stay with the old system.
Got all that? I understand that’s a lot of “inside baseball,” but the gist of the matter is that I haven’t paid anything into social security in over 40 years. Getting a bill for seventeen dollars for social security was quite a shock.
Well, some people would probably just think to themselves that the IRS surely wouldn’t make a mistake over such a trivial matter and, since seventeen dollars isn’t going to overdraw the checking account, it would be much easier and less risky to just pay the seventeen dollars and be done with it.
Some people would do that, but not me. They don’t call me Danger Man for nothing.
I noted from the letter that I had two months to figure it all out and, after sifting through the fine print, I found a phone number I could call. I called the number and had to press my way through three different option menus. My selection on the last option menu told me that all of their operators were dreadfully busy and I would be put on hold until an operator would become available. Then it helpfully suggested that perhaps I would be better served by contacting the IRS through their website. Then I was put on hold, which was fine since I was working on some paperwork in my home office. I decided to wait it out.
Except that’s not what happened. They kept me on hold listening to some horrid background music for half an hour (Girl for Ipanema or some such). Then, after exactly thirty minutes, I heard “click” and then silence. They hung up on me. So I tried again. And the exact same thing happened.
So I decided to take their advice and try the website. As it happens, the website is a confusing mess, a series of dark tunnels, all splaying out in every direction and all leading exactly nowhere. The website sends you to an FAQ page which is supposed to solve any problems that you might be interested in solving, except none of the listed questions have anything to do with social security taxes. The site is also completely lacking in contact information. No phone numbers other than the number I called earlier and very little in the way of other contact info. I searched for about a half hour and finally found what looked like a currently operational email address. I used the address to send a nice email describing my situation and asking for assistance. Then I waited. Two weeks later, I decided that the email had been carefully disposed of in the memory hole and I wouldn’t be hearing from the IRS through that avenue.
So I did a little more research online and found out that the IRS had an office in a nearby large city. The website suggested that I call this office and make an appointment. So I called and, after three more menu selections, I was again put on hold and once again, they hung up on me. This time they at least did me the favor of waiting only five minutes before disconnecting me.
The next day, I took a little time off from work and drove to their office. I had no illusions about getting my problem solved immediately. I figured I would find some nice office assistant there and make an appointment for another day. I found the doors locked. I checked my phone and determined that I was, in fact, there during normal business hours so surely the doors had been left locked accidentally. I knocked and after a couple of minutes, the doors finally swung open and out popped a rather large and unfriendly looking man in a police uniform. He was armed and he looked like I’d just awoken him from a nap so I thought about making a run for it, but as I said earlier, they don’t call me Danger Man for nothing. I asked him if I could see an agent. He told me that he couldn’t let me into the building unless I had an appointment. I told him I’d tried to get an appointment, but the phone system had refused to allow me to make one. His countenance changed from irritation to pity. He said that yes, the system was a mess, but that was the only way he would allow me in and I should try calling again, preferably very early in the morning.
Well, it was clear that I wasn’t getting in this way so I went back to work. The next day, I called at 7 a.m. and worked my way through the menus once again. This time, after about a ten-minute wait, I actually heard a real human voice. I told him my problem and he told me that he could get me an appointment, but it might be easier to handle this problem over the phone. He told me he would connect me to the right office. I asked him if this was a better way of handling the problem than just getting an appointment and he assured me it was. So he put me on hold. And I waited. And after thirty minutes, I heard “click.”
So, I tried again the next day, this time at 7:30. After working through the menus, I once again found myself talking to a person, a different person from the day before. And once again, I was put on hold, but this time someone answered. She seemed nice, for a change. I explained to her my problem and she asked for my social security number. I gave it to her and after about five minutes, she came back on the line and explained that she’d looked at my previous taxes and work history and could come up with no reason I would be charged seventeen dollars for social security taxes. She suggested that it was all a mistake and I should just ignore the notice. Then she said that her area of expertise really wasn’t in social security, so she’d connect me to a person in another office who was an expert. She put me on hold.
After thirty minutes, I heard “click.”
Last year, Congress authorized the hiring of 87,000 more IRS agents. These agents would be used in the enforcement branch of the agency to track down wealthy people who are trying to cheat the tax system. Republicans in the House of Representatives have promised to pull back funding for these agents, but I’m not holding my breath. Their majority is almost non-existent and Democrats control the Senate and the Presidency, making it unlikely they will succeed. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and estimate that hiring those 87,000 agents is going to cost just a little short of twenty billion dollars. If it’s going to cost that much, I’d be appreciative if they move a couple of those agents from enforcement to customer service.
In the meantime, my deadline for paying the seventeen dollars is past. The last thing I heard from a real IRS person was that it was probably a mistake, so I decided to let it slide without paying. If it’s not a mistake, maybe they’ll try to contact me for real and I can get an explanation for all of this. If I am in error, there will probably be some fine I’ll have to pay, which surely will not be all that much. I mean, we’re just talking about seventeen dollars here. Surely, it’s not that big a deal.
Visiting hours at Leavenworth are on Mondays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.Published in