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Tax questions? Don’t expect many answers from the IRS

The IRS is cutting taxpayer services to historically low levels this tax filing season.
The IRS is cutting taxpayer services to historically low levels this tax filing season. File photo

Taxpayers will face the worst levels of service in more than a decade from the Internal Revenue Service this filing season, with as few as 43 percent of callers getting through to an agent and then only after waiting 30 minutes or more, according a report released Wednesday.

In her annual report to Congress, national taxpayer advocate Nina Olson paints a grim picture of an agency crippled by five years of congressional budget cuts and forced to tolerate a “devastating erosion of taxpayer service.”

In addition to being unable to answer the phone, the IRS will be unable to provide answers to anything but “basic” tax-law questions. After the filing season, it will answer no tax-law questions at all. And the agency has halted its longstanding practice of preparing returns for elderly, disabled and low-income taxpayers.

“The requirement to file a tax return and pay taxes is generally the most significant burden a government imposes on its citizens,” Olson’s report says. “We 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.’ ”

In a separate e-mail, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen warned Tuesday that budget cuts could delay refunds for paper filers by more than a week this filing season and force a total agency shutdown later this year, resulting in a two-day furlough for its roughly 80,000 workers.

Moreover, reductions in enforcement activities could wipe out any savings, Koskinen wrote, with the government losing $2 billion in taxes that would otherwise have been collected.

“This year, we are looking at a situation where realistically we have no choice but to do less with less,” Koskinen wrote, adding that the reductions in service “are unacceptable to all of us.”

Olson, who serves as an official watchdog over the IRS, has long complained about the agency’s diminishing ability to respond to taxpayers’ needs as political battles over the national debt have led to ever-deeper cuts in agency funding. This year, however, Olson ranked taxpayer service first on her “most serious problems” list, under the heading “Taxpayer Service Has Reached Unacceptably Low Levels and Is Getting Worse.”

The long slide is vividly illustrated by a single metric: the agency’s ability to answer the phone.

In 2004, a high-water mark, the IRS answered 87 percent of calls, and taxpayers had to wait on hold only about 2 1/2 minutes, the report says. In the teeth of the financial crisis, in 2009, the IRS was still answering 70 percent of its calls after average wait times of about nine minutes.

However, since Republicans took control of the House in 2011 and began demanding sharp cuts at agencies other than the Pentagon, IRS customer service has deteriorated rapidly. Answered calls fell to 61 percent in 2013 and 64 percent last year, a slight uptick due primarily to lower call volume, the report says.

Time spent on hold, meanwhile, skyrocketed to nearly 20 minutes in 2014 and is projected to exceed half an hour during the coming filing season.

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