IRS National Taxpayer Advocate Highlights Problems at the IRS
IRS National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson released her statutorily mandated mid-year report to Congress that identifies the priority issues the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) will address during the upcoming fiscal year, including many issues the IRS and taxpayers have been facing due to unprecedented budget cuts and lack of resources.
Overview of IRS Tax Challenges
The report says the IRS ran a generally successful filing season under difficult circumstances. “With funding down about 17 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis since FY 2010, and with the IRS having had to implement large portions of the [ACA] and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) this year without any supplemental funding, sharp declines in taxpayer service were inevitable,” Olson wrote. Likening the 2015 filing season to “A Tale of Two Cities,” however, the report says: “For the majority of taxpayers who filed their returns and did not require IRS assistance, the filing season was generally successful. For the segment of taxpayers who required help from the IRS, the filing season was by far the worst in memory.”
The report highlights the following issues:
- The IRS answered only 37 percent (37%) of taxpayer calls routed to customer service representatives overall, and the hold time for taxpayers who got through averaged 23 minutes. This level of service represents a sharp drop-off from the 2014 filing season, when the IRS answered 71 percent of its calls and hold times averaged about 14 minutes.
- The IRS answered only 39 percent (39%) of calls from taxpayers seeking assistance from TAS on the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) Toll-Free hotline, and hold times averaged 19 minutes. TAS serves as the IRS’s “safety net” for taxpayers who are experiencing a financial or systemic hardship as a result of IRS action or inaction.
- The IRS answered only 17 percent (17%) of calls from taxpayers who called after being notified that their tax returns had been blocked by the Taxpayer Protection Program (TPP) on suspicion of identity theft, and the hold times averaged about 28 minutes. In three consecutive weeks during the filing season, the IRS answered fewer than 10 percent of these calls.
- The IRS answered only 45 percent (45%) of calls from practitioners who called the IRS on the Practitioner Priority Service line, and hold times averaged 45 minutes.
- The number of “courtesy disconnects” received by taxpayers calling the IRS skyrocketed from about 544,000 in 2014 to about 8.8 million this filing season, an increase of more than 1,500 percent (1500%). The term “courtesy disconnect” is used when the IRS essentially hangs up on a taxpayer because its switchboard is overloaded and cannot handle additional calls.
- The decline in telephone performance can be attributed largely to three factors: The number of taxpayer calls routed to telephone assistors increased by 41 percent (41%), the number of calls answered by telephone assistors decreased by 26 percent (26%), and the average call duration increased by 10 percent (10%).
- The IRS sharply restricted the availability of paper copies of forms and publications, imposing burden on taxpayers without Internet access or online literacy. The IRS’s own Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs) and its Tax Form Outlet Partners such as libraries and post offices did not receive forms until February 28, almost halfway through the filing season. Once a TAC ran out of forms or publications, it could not order more.
Olson wrote that the decline in taxpayer service imposes increased compliance burdens on taxpayers and may lead to erosion in taxpayer trust. “For a tax system that relies on voluntary self-assessment by its taxpayers, none of this bodes well,” she wrote. “In fact, there is a real risk that the inability of taxpayers to obtain assistance from the government, and their consequent frustration, will lead to less voluntary compliance and more enforced compliance.”
Long-Term IRS Strategic Planning
The report attributes the decline in taxpayer service levels to the reduction in IRS funding and reiterates the Advocate’s longstanding view that the IRS requires additional funding to meet taxpayer service needs. However, Olson wrote, “temporary periods of limited funding can have the salutary effect of causing an organization to rethink its mission and allocate its resources more effectively.”
“It should be emphasized that more than 98 percent of all tax revenue collected by the IRS is paid voluntarily and timely. Less than two percent is collected through enforcement action,” the report says. “Thus, increasing enforced collection would be a hollow victory if voluntary compliance declines because of decreasing taxpayer service and the attendant loss of good will.”
Olson expressed concern that the IRS is contemplating plans that would replace traditional IRS employee-to-taxpayer interaction with online services and expanded use of third parties such as preparers, tax professionals, and even software packages, to serve as the taxpayers’ interface with the IRS. She says that expanded availability of online services will provide significant benefits in many areas, but “it is wishful thinking, if not foolhardy, to expect taxpayers to rely on computer-driven systems for resolution of tax problems that, if not resolved fully, could lead to devastating financial consequences.”
She continued: “Taxpayers, and their representatives, need the ability to talk with IRS employees, explain their circumstances, and make sure that the IRS understands their position. The IRS should want to talk with these taxpayers, because each conversation provides an opportunity for it to understand the taxpayer’s facts and circumstances, recognize a situation that presents a different issue, educate the taxpayer about what is required for full compliance, and provide a full resolution to the taxpayer’s problem.”
Assisting Taxpayers With IRS Problems
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