If you owe back taxes to the federal government, the next call asking you to pay may come not from an Internal Revenue Service officer, but from a private debt collector.
Within two weeks, the I.R.S. will turn over data on 12,500 taxpayers each of whom owes $25,000 or less in back taxes to three collection agencies. Larger debtors will continue to be pursued by I.R.S. officers.
The move, an initiative of the Bush administration, represents the first step in a broader plan to outsource the collection of smaller tax debts to private companies over time. Although I.R.S. officials acknowledge that this will be much more expensive than doing it internally, they say that Congress has forced their hand by refusing to let them hire more revenue officers, who could pull in a lot of easy-to-collect money.
The private debt collection program is expected to bring in $1.4 billion over 10 years, with the collection agencies keeping about $330 million of that, or 22 to 24 cents on the dollar.
By hiring more revenue officers, the I.R.S. could collect more than $9 billion each year and spend only $296 million or about three cents on the dollar to do so, Charles O. Rossotti, the computer systems entrepreneur who was commissioner from 1997 to 2002, told Congress four years ago.
I.R.S. officials on Friday characterized those figures as correct, but said that the plan Mr. Rossotti had proposed had been forestalled by Congress, which declined to authorize it to hire more revenue officers.
Critics of the privatization plan point not only to the higher cost but also to what they say is a greater potential for abuse. With private companies in the mix, they say, debtors could more easily be tricked into paying money to scam artists using spoof Web sites or other schemes, a problem the I.R.S. alerted taxpayers to in April. Brady R. Bennett, collections director for the I.R.S., said that by 2008, about 350,000 past-due tax records will be distributed among about 10 private debt-collection agencies. To guard against fraud, he said, the agencies will contact taxpayers only by telephone or mail not the Internet and will instruct them to send all payments directly to the United States Treasury, not the private collection agency.
One of the three companies selected by the I.R.S. is a law firm in Austin, Tex., where a former partner, Juan Peña, admitted in 2002 that he paid bribes to win a collection contract from the city of San Antonio. He went to jail for the crime.
Last month the same law firm, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, was again in the news. One of its competitors, Municipal Services Bureau, also of Austin, sued Brownsville, Tex., charging that the city improperly gave the Linebarger firm a collections contract that it suggested was influenced by campaign contributions to two city commissioners.
Joe Householder, a spokesman for Linebarger, which specializes in delinquent tax collections, said it had resolved the issues raised by the Peña case in 2002 and that it believed it had acted properly in Brownsville. The mayor of Brownsville, Eddie Treviño Jr., said that the contract vote had been unanimous and scoffed at the accusations of misconduct.
The two other companies that have won debt collection contracts from the I.R.S. are Pioneer Credit Recovery of Arcade, N.Y., a division of the SLM Corporation, and the CBE Group of Waterloo, Iowa.
The main objection so far to the privatization program is that it is more expensive than internal collection. “I freely admit it,” Mark W. Everson, the tax commissioner, told a House of Representatives committee in March.
Privatizing government services is often promoted as a way to cut costs. But the government would probably net $1.1 billion from private debt collectors over 10 years, compared with the $87 billion that could be reaped if the agency hired more revenue officers, as Mr. Rossotti had recommended.
Taxpayer rights are at risk with privatization, Nina B. Olson, the I.R.S. taxpayer advocate, warned Congress earlier this year. “Because private collectors will operate under rules of profit maximization rather than the I.R.S.’s customer-service based policy,” she warned, the private collectors may have less incentive to safeguard taxpayer rights.
Al Cleland, a retired I.R.S. tax collector in Minnesota, predicted that using private collectors would cause some debtors to owe more.
“We always told people to get current on their taxes first, so they would not have more penalties added, and then work on paying off their back taxes,” Mr. Cleland said. “A private collection agency has no incentive to tell taxpayers that, so people will pay more penalties.”
Mr. Bennett of the I.R.S. said that such advice was correct, but that it applied primarily to small business owners, whose cases will not be sent to the private agencies.
Under federal budget rules, money spent to hire tax collectors is treated as a discretionary expense, and Congress is cutting discretionary spending. In business terms, the rules treat the I.R.S. as a cost center, not as the government’s profit center.
The private debt-collection program, however, is outside the budget rules because, except for the start-up costs, the collectors are to be paid from the proceeds.