IRS budget cuts hurting customer service

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington— Taxpayers could be waiting longer on the IRS to answer its phone or issue a refund this tax season due to a shortage of staff.

Five years of federal budget cuts have led to a prolonged hiring freeze at the agency, whose full- and part-time workforce in Michigan is down 22 percent since 2011, according to data provided by a federal employees' union. Nationwide, staff levels are at the lowest level since the early 1980s.

The IRS has said the shortage likely will mean delays in refunds for some taxpayers, fewer audits and lower levels of telephone service. The filing deadline is April 15.

Officials are urging taxpayers to file online and check its website,, for answers to common questions to avoid long waits on its toll-free line.

Students at the Michigan State University School of Law's clinic for low-income taxpayers spend much of their day on hold with the IRS, waiting to request documentation or other information needed to help clients settle collection, levy, audit and other issues.

Last semester, the wait time was 30 to 45 minutes. This semester, students often wait on hold for two to four hours per call, said Joshua Wease, clinical professor and director of the Alvin L. Storrs Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic.

"That's if they answer at all. Where we've really seen an uptake is the number of students calling who are waiting for more than two hours and then get disconnected," Wease said.

"It really has been detrimental in terms of us being able to resolve these problems for our clients."

The IRS already had difficulty answering its phones: Only 64 percent of callers could get through last year.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has said this year's budget reduction of $346 million required extending the agency's hiring freeze, projecting the IRS will lose an additional 3,000 to 4,000 full-time workers through attrition in 2015. Staffing levels are down 16,000 to 17,000 when compared with 2010, he said.

Taxpayer advocates have raised concerns about how the agency's reduced capacity will affect its efforts to combat identity theft and fraud. Also, for the first time, millions are filling out forms related to their insurance coverage through the new government health exchanges.

The IRS had received about 92 million tax returns from individual taxpayers as of last week, and issued more than 71 million refunds, Koskinen said at a National Press Club appearance March 31.

More than 90 percent of refunds are issued in fewer than three weeks, but processing delays could affect people who file paper tax returns or whose paperwork requires manual review due to errors. They could wait an extra week or longer for a refund.

Congress has justified cutting the IRS budget following management problems identified two years ago, including overspending on conferences and targeting of applications from nonprofit political advocacy groups and others. Koskinen says the agency has acted on an Inspector General's recommendations to fix those and other problems.

At $10.9 billion, this year's IRS budget is the lowest since 2008. The National Treasury Employees Union is backing the $12.9 billion level proposed by the Obama administration for 2016. It would fund 3,000 more employees to help answer phone lines.

"It is counterintuitive and counterproductive to cut IRS staffing when the demand for the agency's service continues to grow," Colleen M. Kelley, the union's president, said in a statement.

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