Staff Cuts Destroying IRS Taxpayer Service

IRS Only Able to Answer 43 Percent of Taxpayer Calls in 2015

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Budget and Staff Cuts are Destroying Taxpayer Service at the IRS. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Back in January, U.S. Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson warned Congress that staff cuts would result in the IRS providing its worst level of service to taxpayers since 2001. On February 25, she got to tell Congress “I told you so.”

In her testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee, Olson gave lawmakers stark evidence of just how right her January prediction had been.

“From January first through February 14th this year, the IRS answered only 43 percent of the calls it received from taxpayers seeking to speak with a customer service representative, and those taxpayers who managed to get through sat on hold an average of about 28 minutes,” Olson testified.

“By comparison, during the same period last year, 77 percent of taxpayers got through and waited on hold an average of about 10 minutes.”

And if you do get through to the IRS, your question had better be pretty simple, and if you try to ask it after April 15, you won’t even get an answer, according to Olson.

“The IRS is now only answering the most basic of tax-law questions through April 15, and none after that. And it is no longer preparing tax returns for the most vulnerable taxpayer populations: elderly, disabled and low-income.”

Also See: IRS Response to Audited Taxpayers Just too Slow, says GAO

The problem at the IRS, said Olson, is understandable:  too much work for too few people. “This performance decline is huge and results from a combination of more work and reduced resources,” she said.

According to Olson, the IRS typically receives more than 100 million telephone calls, 10 million letters, and five million visits to field offices from taxpayers each year.

The Lost Taxpayer Trust Effect

According to Olson, the ever-poorer service has contributed to the deepening lack of trust among taxpayers for the IRS and the entire income tax process.

Without that trust, noted Olson, it is difficult for the IRS to get taxpayers to pay what they owe the government fully and on time every year, thus helping to close the ever-more costly tax gap.

“With respect to the taxpaying public, trust will not be rebuilt until the IRS begins to provide the taxpayer service that taxpayers expect, need, and deserve to comply with the tax laws,” said Olson.”

Mo Money, Mo People

According to Olson in order to rebuild taxpayer trust, Congress needs to give the IRS a lot more of two things: money and people.

“Ultimately, I do not believe that can happen until the IRS receives additional funding to hire more customer service employees to answer taxpayers’ telephone calls, process taxpayers’ correspondence in a timely manner, and assist taxpayers who seek assistance at its walk-in sites,” she said.

On February 27, the Government Accountability Office issued a report showed that the IRS’ fiscal year 2015 funding of $10.9 billion and staffing level of 81,279 full-time equivalents reflect declines that have occurred over several years and are now below fiscal year 2009 levels.

“Since fiscal year 2010, IRS’s annual appropriation has declined by $1.2 billion, and staffing has fallen by about 11,000 FTEs since fiscal year 2009 while the agency’s workload has increased for reasons such as a surge in identity theft related refund fraud and the implementation of key provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” stated the GAO.

Forced to respond to the budget cuts, the IRS has reduced staffing, extended a hiring freeze and limiting extra tax-season temporary hiring.

Of course, Olson also noted that the IRS could also help itself regain taxpayers’ trust by letting the principles of its recently adopted Taxpayer Bill of Rights “into every nook and cranny of its actions.”

“To assist in this regard, I have recommended that Congress codify the Taxpayer Bill of Rights that the IRS adopted last year and enact specific protections to give the Taxpayer Bill of Rights teeth,” Olson reminded lawmakers.

“I believe that Congress and the IRS have a shared responsibility to ensure that the taxpayers who pay our nation’s bills receive the assistance they need when they seek to meet their tax obligations,” said Olson. “As I wrote in my recent report, I do not think it is acceptable for the government to tell millions of taxpayers who seek help each year, in essence, ‘We’re sorry.

You’re on your own.’”