WASHINGTON, July 16 (UPI) -- Only a third of taxpayers who called the IRS for help this tax season got through to someone, but not before waiting on hold for more than 20 minutes, a government watchdog group found.
A report issued Wednesday to Congress by the National Taxpayer Advocate found the Internal Revenue Service hung up on customers calling for help 8.8 million times this year, underscoring the widespread strains put on the tax agency by years of budget cuts. The report found that fewer than 10 percent of callers whose returns were flagged as suspected identity theft could get through on an IRS help line during the busy tax season.
Nina Olson, who heads up the independent office created to help consumers with IRS problems, said the IRS's function as an "enforcement agency first and a service agency second," coupled with a "mistaken assumption" it can save money and maintain voluntary compliance by automating taxpayer services are some of the steps that have led the agency in the wrong direction.
"Millions of taxpayers were unable to reach the IRS by phone; millions did not receive a timely response (if any) to their correspondence; and many more may have had to pay a tax professional for answers to tax law questions or for assistance they could previously have obtained from the IRS for free," Olson wrote.
"In my view, (the IRS) should transform itself as a tax agency from one that is designed around nabbing the small percentage of the population that actively evades tax to one that aims first and foremost to meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of taxpayers who are trying to comply with the tax laws," she wrote.
The harsh criticism comes as the IRS faced increased demands in budgeting and staffing. About 50 million taxpayers reached out to the IRS this filing season, many with questions about a new wave of identity theft, new requirements under the Affordable Care Act and other new tax laws.
Olson described the 2015 akin to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, which opens with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
"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," she wrote.
According to the report:
- "Courtesy disconnects" - intentional phone hangups from the IRS switchboard because the system is overloaded - soared to about 8.8 million in the 2015 tax season. That's up from 544,000 in the 2014 season.
- IRS customer service answered about 37 percent of calls between Jan. 1 and April 18, with an average hold time of 23 minutes. In 2014, the IRS answered 71 percent of calls with an average 14-minute hold time.
- The IRS answered 17 percent of calls from taxpayers notified their returns had been blocked for suspected identity theft, with an average hold time of 28 minutes. During three consecutive weeks, the IRS only answered fewer than 10 percent of calls.
- Local libraries and U.S. Postal Service branches didn't get printed publications and forms until Feb. 28, nearly halfway through the filing season. Once supplies ran out, no more were available.
Since 2010, Congress has cut the IRS budget by $1.2 billion, or 17 percent. House Republicans are proposing more cuts next year. The report said the IRS processed 126.1 million individual tax returns and issued 91.8 million refunds for the 2015 season.
IRS spokeswoman Julianne Fisher Breitbeil said in a statement, "The IRS must carefully balance limited resources to meet its dual mission of providing taxpayer service and enforcing the tax laws ... The continuing cuts to our budget have severely hampered our ability to provide taxpayers with the services they need and deserve."