JEFFERSON CITY • In 2017, during the height of the tax season, workers at a state call center were answering only three out of every 10 calls.
It wasn’t that they weren’t answering the questions posed by people about their income taxes. They weren’t even picking up the phone.
This year, following a revamp of the agency’s approach to helping the public, the answer rate is more than 80 percent.
That’s partially due to the Missouri Department of Revenue’s move to hire an average of about 12 additional temporary workers to help answer questions this year. Also, state officials took steps to slim down the volume of calls flowing into the center.
With the April 17 filing day approaching, top officials in Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration say the turnaround is an example of bringing a new perspective to the bureaucracy that runs state government.
But, said Greitens’ chief operating officer, Drew Erdmann, “We’ve got a long way to go. It’s a huge opportunity to change how we do business.”
The Department of Revenue’s call center has not been a very pleasant place to work in recent years.
The people who are on duty to try to help taxpayers earn a base salary of $24,360. Few stuck around long enough to earn a raise.
In the prior two fiscal years, workers in one division have departed within a year of their hiring, at a rate of 80 percent in 2017 and 61 percent in 2018.
While Greitens and the Legislature are considering raising state worker salaries by as much as $700 beginning July 1, Erdmann said the problems facing the call center workers, as well as others spread across state government, are not just about money.
Taxpayers may find they are unintentionally over- or underwithholding for their taxes if they don't do some legwork.
To improve the answer rate, managers began working to reduce the volume of calls to the call center by diverting more people to the Department of Revenue website.
Taxpayers who have relatively easy questions — on the status of their income tax return, for example — can sign up for a service that will notify them via a text message when a check is being processed.
“It lowers the load on the system,” Erdmann said.
Revenue officials also replaced the head of the division and brought in additional temporary workers at a rate of $9 per hour to help.
According to figures provided to the Post-Dispatch, the call center received 104,494 calls in February 2017. Only 30,809 of those were answered.
In 2018, during the same time period, 49,620 calls came in and 40,519 were answered.
The drop in call volume also could be attributed to an improved payout rate by the state. In 2017, Revenue officials said it took 10.7 calendar days to issue refund checks. This year, between January and March 30, it is taking 7.6 calendar days.
The improvement comes after state Auditor Nicole Galloway released a report in January showing state income tax refunds had been increasingly and deliberately delayed last year for cash-flow reasons, costing the state added money because tax refunds issued after 45 days past filing must be paid with interest.
Galloway is in the midst of a follow-up audit looking at this year’s performance by the agency.
While the current situation at Revenue represents an improvement, Erdmann said there are similar problems to be resolved throughout state government.
The Department of Corrections, for example, is grappling with ongoing allegations of harassment of female prison guards. Other state agencies have paid out millions of dollars in judgments and settlements over discrimination.
The turnover rate for employees at major state agencies is in the double digits.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Erdmann said.
Last year, the administration convinced about 35,000 of the state’s workers to take a survey that could help officials determine the organizational health of state government.
The findings were discouraging.
The survey found that a majority of state workers said they had no direction. Nearly 80 percent said there are no consequences of a good or bad performance.
Erdmann said that sentiment reflects a lack of training among managers.
“We don’t train people well,” he acknowledged.
As a first step, the state has implemented a new employee review system designed to bring rank-and-file workers together with their managers on a more regular basis.
“It’s making a difference,” said Sarah Steelman, commissioner of the governor’s Office of Administration, which oversees state personnel issues.
Other future plans include offering a system of rewards for workers, better opportunities for advancement and improved communications.
“We’ve got to focus on a few fundamental things,” said Erdmann. “These people actually do care.”
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