The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The IRS has improved but still provides bad customer service

NTEU National President-Elect Tony Reardon. (Courtesy of NTEU)

From the customer care the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides, you wouldn’t know it collects $3.3 trillion every year.

Even with some improvements this year following a $290 million budget increase, the IRS continues to leave taxpayers and its own employees frustrated with the agency’s inability to deliver an acceptable level of service.

“The customer service challenge we’ve had over the last couple of years has been a direct relationship to the cut in the budget,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a telephone interview. “We can’t answer phone calls unless we have people and we can’t have people unless we can pay them.”

Answering taxpayer calls is a key measure of IRS service.

This year, Koskinen expects IRS to answer 47 percent to 50 percent of taxpayer calls. That’s terrible service. Yet, it would be a marked improvement over last year’s abysmal 37 percent.

Instead of Congress calling Koskinen to task for the poor service, it created the situation by intentionally underfunding the tax collectors. The budget cuts amounted to a form of punishment from Republicans for IRS spending on conferences and scrutiny of certain groups.

“We deliberately lowered the IRS funding to a level to make them think twice about what they were doing and why,” Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, said last year.

[IRS chief paints bleak picture for underfunded agency]

They did this knowing that the IRS collects about $4 for every $1 in its budget, according to IRS data.

“Right now,” Koskinen said, “we estimate the government is losing $4 to $5 billion a year in collections that we were not able to make because we have 5,000 fewer revenue agents, officers and criminal investigators.”

Ironically, but not unexpectedly, any suffering Republicans wished to visit upon the agency was ultimately felt by their constituents and other taxpayers.

While this year’s tax service should be notably better, it will be far from Koskinen’s goal of 80 percent of the calls being answered in less than five minutes.

And among tax workers, the level of service they provide is way below what they would like.

David Snider, a National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) chapter president in Portland, Ore., said wait times for callers to his office can range from 30 to 60 minutes. Staffing shortages also create problems for walk-in taxpayers seeking assistance at local offices.

Snider said one office in Bend, Ore. serves seven counties but is staffed by only one employee.

Compared to when he started at IRS 16 years ago, “the level of service we provide is significantly worse,” he said, but “the dedication of the people is incredibly high.”

[The three dirtiest letters in the GOP primary]

Snider was in Washington for NTEU’s legislative conference. He and other delegates converged on Congress Tuesday, trying to persuade its members to provide better funding for the IRS and other agencies and higher pay for all federal workers.

“NTEU believes that only by restoring critical funding for effective enforcement and taxpayer service programs can the IRS provide America’s taxpayers with quality service while maximizing revenue collection,” NTEU President Tony Reardon told Congress this month.

On Tuesday, Reardon cited IRS taxpayer advocate data that say the average hold time for taxpayer calls to the IRS jumped from 14 minutes in 2014 to 23 minutes in 2015. In 2010 almost three-quarters of IRS calls were answered, compared to a little over a third last year.

“What happens to these taxpayers when the IRS doesn’t pick up the phone?”

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson asked that question in her annual report to Congress last month.

The answer she provided is not good.

After a period of time, the taxpayer’s account is moved to an automated collection system (ACS), which could place a lien against the taxpayer’s property, bank account or wages.

“The IRS doesn’t know the taxpayer has been trying to call it,” she said. “Nor does the IRS make any effort to call the taxpayer before it automatically takes enforcement action against the taxpayer. By the time the taxpayer gets assigned to ACS (Automated Collection System), the IRS assumes the taxpayer has been unresponsive and is not trying to comply — despite the lousy levels of service on the pre-ACS phone lines.”

Many of these people are trying to pay taxes they owe or make arrangements if they can’t pay their entire bill at once.

“Yet,” she said, “the IRS isn’t able to pick up the phone to talk to them!”

But who gets punished? The taxpayer.