Wednesday, March 4, 1998
IRS agents pay taxes, too

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Go to downtown Covington. Look for the front gate. Turn right into the main entrance. Head for the lobby.

Those were Jeff Seibert's directions on how to get to his place of business for a Lunch with Cliff.

''Everybody,'' he groaned, ''knows where we work.''

Can't say as I did. But then, until Monday's lunch, I preferred to keep my contacts with the Internal Revenue Service to a minimum.

Jeff works inside the sprawling IRS Covington Service Center. He and his three regular lunch companions - John Mitchell, Barb Courtney and Keith Morris - are officers in the local chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union. Their chapter represents 2,900 of the 5,000-plus area IRS employees who process tons of tax forms and listen to countless complaints.

They start work at 6 a.m., so lunch this day was pretty early for me. At 10:30 a.m., they left the IRS behind, crossed the street and found a corner table in the dining room of the Panorama Senior Citizens Apartments.

The ground-floor restaurant is an IRS hangout. Government workers, easily identified by their ID badges, fill every table. The air is thick with cigarette smoke and anxious talk about deadlines, computer breakdowns and skittish taxpayers.

But for John, Barb, Jeff and Keith, this is also a place where they unwind, where they find a release, if it's only for 30 minutes a day, from the pressures of the job.

Barb acted as the group's class clown. She teased Keith about being all business. ''He's as serious as Prozac.'' He smiled, and she fanned herself as if she were going to faint.

She razzed Jeff about his love life. ''He dates women all over the world,'' she deadpanned. ''By computer.''

Jeff blushed. But the 10-year IRS veteran got even by kidding Barb about her German boyfriend and how ''she wants to get a German flag tattooed on her rear end.''

If, that is, IRS regulations permit such activities.

As we settled in to talk, they were kind enough to recognize that my feelings about the IRS were not, well, unique.

''We know people don't like us,'' John said. ''But I'm used to that.'' Tall, thin and laid-back, the Vietnam vet joined the IRS in 1988 after 22 years in the Air Force.

''Given a choice, most folks would rather be pulled over by a cop than meet someone from the IRS. But, we're human, too,'' he said. ''We're not a bunch of cold, unfeeling bloodsuckers. We care about doing a good job, and we want to help.''

John, Barb, Jeff and Keith took turns stressing how it's a struggle to keep the customer satisfied in an agency where the tax collectors are trained to keep an eye out for funny business and the taxpayers feel any contact is an accusation.

Keith, a nine-year IRS employee since being downsized out of a job by General Electric, said the IRS is not a customer-friendly agency. He knows of instances where fellow employees have been reprimanded for spending too much time helping taxpayers.

Last year, Congress reacted to stories of the IRS hounding taxpayers by proposing changes that would make the agency more customer-friendly. This sent shock waves throughout the Covington Service Center. Jeff, a former radio DJ, sees lots of IRS bosses ''wondering if they're going to have a job in a year.''

The tension level inside the Service Center is high enough on its own. But it doubles when a call comes in from a stressed-out taxpayer. Almost every time Barb, an 18-year IRS veteran, answers the phone, she's reminded: ''Hey, I pay your salary.''

She would like to remind the caller: ''I pay taxes, too. We're not wild about it. The forms are a pain in the butt for us, too. And, we don't get an employee discount.''

But at such times, she bites her tongue. The former buyer of women's accessories for McAlpin's knows when she's dealing with upset and, sometimes, desperate customers.

As lunch wrapped up, talk turned to what members of the group were going to do after work. Barb said she planned to play golf or maybe help out at her mom's restaurant in Florence.

''But it's not a second job,'' a laughing Barb insisted. ''I donate my time. I don't have any unreported income.''

She said that last sentence real loudly. Just in case any tax spies were listening, she wanted them to know she was right with the IRS.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.