Internal Revenue Service Allows Taxpayers in 33 Cities To Air Grievances With Agency Employees in ``Problem-Solving Day''By ROB WELLS

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Several thousand taxpayers plan to spend part of this weekend visiting the Internal Revenue Service, seeing how the agency's rhetoric about improved service meshes with reality.

The IRS today began holding ``problem-solving days'' in 33 cities today, an attempt to clear the decks of taxpayer grievances.

This customer outreach comes as the IRS scrambles to fend off criticism of its operations and treatment of taxpayers, highlighted by recent Senate investigative hearings into alleged abuses.

By holding the sessions, the tax agency ``is trying to say to the public, `Look, we're serious. We really want to try to help you,' '' said Connie Coleman, a former IRS regional commissioner in New York now with the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand.

It's a message many taxpayers receive skeptically based on their dealings with the agency.

Outside a Baltimore federal building this morning, Bob Alexander held a large and heavy file box containing details of his seven-year ordeal with the tax collector.

``That's what we want to do is to get someone to show me that we were wrong,'' Alexander said of his meeting with the IRS. His wife approached the appointment with a sense of resignation.

``It's a long boring, very draw-out story that doesn't seem to end,'' Pat Alexander said.

Between October 1995 and September 1996, the IRS answered just 21 percent of telephone calls and 74 percent of attempted calls received a busy signal, according to the National Commission on Restructuring the IRS, a congressional panel that studied the agency. While the figure improved last year, about half of taxpayers' calls still don't get through on the first try, the commission said.

Current and former IRS officials say the agency is taking the special Saturday sessions very seriously, with an eye toward rehabilitating its bruised public image. Shortly after being sworn in as IRS commissioner on Thursday, Charles Rossotti held a video conference with IRS districts nationwide to discuss the importance of problem-solving days.

Rossotti, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Deputy IRS Commissioner Michael Dolan and other administration officials planned to visit various sites today.

About 3,500 taxpayers made appointments to discuss their problems with the agency. Some 1,000 IRS workers will be on hand to handle these appointments and any walk-in cases, with extras on call, officials said.

The IRS encouraged people to schedule appointments so their cases could be researched and perhaps resolved early. Some 400 cases were resolved without requiring the taxpayers to come in, the IRS said.

Earlier this week, the Baltimore IRS office estimated about 40 percent of the appointments were made by people who hadn't filed tax returns, while roughly 38 percent dealt with collection matters and another 15 percent sought reconsideration of examinations.

Similar problem-solving sessions were held on a smaller scale last month by local IRS offices in Texas and Hawaii.

Beanna Whitlock, an enrolled agent registered to practice before the IRS in Plano, Texas, was invited to participate in three sessions at community colleges in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Aside from a few persistent tax protesters who aired their grievances, Whitlock said, much of the event was devoted to basic tax education.

``The American taxpayer is very unaware of how the tax system works and the avenues of assistance available to them,'' Whitlock said.

The tax professionals who attended the sessions didn't provide much advice, but instead gave moral support.

``We found that a lot of taxpayers were willing to talk to IRS, but they wanted an enrolled agent there as a security blanket,'' Whitlock said.

Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other House Republicans are piggybacking on the event by holding their own tax-related events.