Is the Revenue Department too busy to take your tax money?

Jason McElroy can't get through to the city's Revenue Department. He needs help paying his taxes, but every time he dials the number, it's busy. He's tried and failed to get through so many times, he's becoming incredulous.

"I don't believe it's an actual number," he said.

He's not crazy. It's Our Money conducted an admittedly unscientific study and called the department's number 10 times, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a recent weekday. It was busy every time. Then we periodically dialed the line throughout the past week. It was busy all but once.

(Sidebar: Check out how long it took to get through to everyone else at the city.)

McElroy, who works for a software company, was ringing the department because several weeks had passed since he sent the city a check for his wage taxes, and it hadn't been cashed. He wanted to know if it was lost and whether he should send a new check.

The number he was calling, 215-686-6600, is listed on the department's website as the official number for questions about all of the city's 18 taxes except the real-estate tax.

After repeatedly trying in vain to get through to someone in the department, McElroy began emailing and finally got a response. But the fact that it was so hard to get in touch with someone over the phone got on McElroy's nerves.

"I'm a willing payer and I'm trying to stay current with the account," he said. "I'm effectively begging them to tell me how much money I owe and where to send it."

It bugged It's Our Money, too. After all, the city could use the dough. Philadelphia does the worst job of collecting delinquent real-estate taxes of any major U.S. city, according to a recent Inquirer report. The city and the school district are owed hundreds of millions in back property taxes, penalties and interest.

The city's tax revenues have also been lower than expected this fiscal year, according to the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. If that trend continues, the city could be forced to make budget cuts or raise taxes.

So why do callers to the Revenue Department get a busy signal instead of being sent to Muzak while on hold? Or to voice mail?

Revenue Commissioner Keith Richardson said there are only 16 phone agents in the department, and they receive an average of 2,500 calls a week. The callers have questions about everything tax-related, such as tax discounts or notices they've received. He said that just 30 to 35 callers are placed on hold at a time - and that everyone else will get the busy signal.

Richardson said he doesn't want to place more people on hold because they could be waiting for an hour or more. And he doesn't want to send folks to an automated message telling them how long they'll be waiting because it's hard to estimate the length of calls, because some are brief but some others are extremely lengthy.

"It's not a quick-hit conversation with a lot of taxpayers," said Richardson.

He said that callers who don't get a busy signal wait for an average of only five minutes - which is better than the department's goal of 13 minutes.

The department does not have a stated goal of how many calls it should answer within a given period, but Richardson said it is working to develop a standard.

Philly 3-1-1's director, Rosetta Lue, said that the industry standard for call centers in the private sector is to answer 80 percent of calls within 20 seconds but that it's unfair to compare for-profit businesses to the government.

Richardson said he's planning other improvements to the phone system, but declined to elaborate. He stressed that taxpayers should email revenue@phila.gov if they get the busy-signal blues.

As for McElroy, he finally got to talk with someone over the phone yesterday. He said a department representative called him after It's Our Money started asking questions, and his bill is now paid up.

If he has problems next time, he said, he'll call the rep's direct number - and avoid the public line like the plague.

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