- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Angry at the IRS for its poor treatment of Americans? Then give the agency more money, Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate told Congress on Tuesday.

Just 40 percent of taxpayers who called to make payment arrangements were able to get through in the most recent tax filing season — and those that did manage to connect had to wait on average more than 45 minutes, said Ms. Olson, whose Office of the Taxpayer Advocate essentially functions as the public’s “voice” at the federal tax-collection agency.

She said continual budget cuts from 2010 through 2016 ate into the IRS’s ability to answer their phone lines.

“The combination of less funding and more work has eroded the IRS’s ability to serve taxpayers,” Ms. Olson told lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee.

An infusion of cash last year did help.

The overall level of phone service improved from 37 percent of calls answered in 2015 to 79 percent this year.

But Ms. Olson said the agency can’t continue to improve unless it gets more funding, and more personnel.

Although the IRS has roughly 83,000 employees, Ms. Olson said 12 states don’t have any appeals officers within their boundaries and 14 states don’t have IRS liaisons for small business owners. Only 98 IRS employees conduct outreach and education for the roughly 62 million small business and self-employed taxpayers in the country.

When asked how much the IRS would need in resources, Ms. Olson said she didn’t know what the right number would be.

“I more look at it as what are the skills that we’re missing and what do we have to build up,” she said.

Republicans have said the IRS’s problems were its own fault, pointing to investigations that found the agency made the 2015 tax season more painful than it should have been by siphoning money away from customer service and toward the Obama administration’s own priorities.

In 2013, the agency dedicated 55 percent of the user fees it collected to go to customer service. In 2015, it cut that to less than 10 percent of user fees.

The IRS also said it thought written correspondence was more important than answering phones, so it shifted employees’ focus.

In the years since, Congress has added more money — but insisted the IRS use it for customer service, not to shift to other areas.

Ms. Olson said one area that needs immediate help is technology. She said the IRS has one of the federal government’s oldest IT systems.

“We really have to get the IRS to submit a strategic plan about IT … about what they’re plans are and what the gaps in their skill sets are and that will drive the number.”

J. Russell George, the treasury inspector general for the tax administration, said the IRS has also been stretched by having to oversee Obamacare’s tax penalty — another responsibility for a workforce already stretched.

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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