Unanswered phones to stall taxpayers
WASHINGTON — Sorry, taxpayers: There’s at least a 30 percent chance your call won’t be answered if you have questions for the Internal Revenue Service this tax filing season.
Newly confirmed IRS Commissioner John Koskinen opened the filing season for the 2013 tax year Friday in Baltimore and later said, “We really do stand ready to help people make sure they file their tax returns accurately and on time.”
Then he had this caution: “Phone lines are going to be extremely busy” and have “frequently extensive wait times.”
That’s because the nation’s tax collector was the only major agency not restored to pre-sequester spending levels by the budget deal Congress passed in January. The IRS has 8,000 fewer employees than it had in 2010, and although it can shift some employees to customer service roles during tax season, it has limited resources, Koskinen said.
A recent report by the Taxpayer Advocate Service said the IRS answered 61 percent of customer service calls last year, and those who got through spent an average of 18 minutes on hold.
“At the risk of vast understatement, it is a sad state of affairs when the government writes tax laws as complex as ours and then is unable to answer any questions beyond ‘basic’ ones from baffled citizens who are doing their best to comply,” said National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson.
Koskinen said he hopes to improve to 80 percent of calls answered with full funding but aims for 70 percent this year.
“Personally, I find that unacceptable,” he said. “I think if people want to pay their taxes, they ought not to have to stand in a long line, they ought not to wait for half an hour on the phone.” The IRS has stopped providing taxpayer assistance in person at IRS offices.
Taxpayers who need assistance and make less than $52,000 can visit one of 13,000 community-based Volunteer Income Tax Assistance centers, Koskinen said, or file for free using one of 14 electronic filing providers.
The IRS opened its systems for electronic filing of individual tax returns on Friday, 10 days later than scheduled because of the ripple effects of the government shutdown last October. The season ends on the April 15 deadline.
Koskinen was sworn in less than a month ago to lead an agency battered by funding cuts, management challenges and a scandal over its treatment of political groups seeking tax-exempt status. He said he wants to make taxpayer service a top priority.
“It may take me a little while to convince people that we’re from the IRS and we’re here to help you,” he said.