The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Business

February 3, 2014

The Color of Money: IRS finds customer service taxing

— If you have a question for the IRS that you think can be answered over the phone, think again.

     Last year, more than 100 million calls were placed to the tax-collection agency. Nearly 20 million of them went unanswered. Those who did get through were put on hold for an average of almost 18 minutes.

     These are just a few of the eye-openers in the annual report that the National Taxpayer Advocate recently issued to Congress.

     Nina Olson, the advocate, said that the agency's funding was cut substantially in last year's sequestration. In addition, the IRS has had to handle a huge increase in tax-related identity theft and refund fraud, assigning more than 3,000 employees to address those issues last year.

     "The combination of more work and less funding predictably has impaired the IRS' ability both to meet taxpayer needs and to improve tax compliance," Olson said. "Because of the harm identity theft victims suffer, we believe that was the right decision, but the reassignment of so many employees meant that other work in crucial taxpayer service and enforcement areas simply could not be done."

     Given the challenges the IRS is facing, don't procrastinate with filing your tax return if you've got an issue and need help.

     The IRS will be answering only "basic" tax questions by phone and at its walk-in sites during this filing season. If you have a more complex issue, the agency will refer you to its website (IRS.gov) or its publications or recommend that you seek help from outside resources, such as tax software.

     "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," Olson said.

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