As Tax Day nears, don't expect much help from IRS
Floridians seeking assistance on their taxes shouldn't expect much help from the IRS.
With the April 15 filing deadline looming, the agency's head and leaders of the union representing workers there say more than 60 percent of calls to the tax agency aren't being answered. And people going to tax service centers for help must wait in line for hours.
In addition, the IRS is making fewer tax forms and instruction booklets available for public distribution at libraries and post offices around the country. That's led to complaints from frustrated patrons, particularly seniors, at libraries across Florida who are accustomed to picking up hard copies from their shelves.
In a state with a disproportionately large elderly population, the prospect of accessing and completing tax returns electronically is daunting for many, officials from several libraries in the Sunshine State said.
Agency officials and workers blame the reduction in service on severe budget cuts in recent years. The agency's budget this year is $1.2 billion, 10 percent less than what it was in fiscal 2011.
That has caused the agency to reduce its full- and part-time workforce by more than 18,000, or about 17 percent, since 2011. The number of IRS workers in Florida has dropped from 3,517 to 2,975, or 15.4 percent, over the same period.
The number of IRS employees assigned nationwide to answer taxpayer telephone calls has been cut by more than one-fourth, from about 9,400 in 2010 to 6,900 last year.
"This is truly an abysmal level of service," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a speech last week.
In reducing the distribution of printed tax forms, the agency is encouraging taxpayers to get what they need online at IRS.gov, including forms and the information needed to fill them out.
But that can be a hardship for older filers.
"Our patrons have expressed their dismay that we no longer receive many of the tax forms," said Lynlee Lebensart, assistant branch manager at the library in West Boynton Beach. "This is mostly a senior population and their ability to obtain forms electronically is limited."
Last month, Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio cosponsored a resolution calling on the IRS to continue providing printed copies of tax forms and instructions.
"While filing taxes electronically has become the norm in the 21st century, we must also recognize that many Americans still lack the Internet access and tools to be able to do so," Rubio said. "The IRS shouldn't be making it harder for taxpayers to comply with the law, and this resolution makes clear that the IRS's behavior borders on callous indifference to the unique needs of many, especially our seniors."
The IRS is also experimenting with a system for people to make appointments at service centers instead of waiting in line. And, with more than half of taxpayers using a professional preparer, the IRS launched a new directory of preparers it considers qualified on the agency's website this year.
GOP members of Congress say the agency could provide better service by being more efficient and cutting out waste, such as bonuses to its employees, excessive spending on conferences, and executive travel.
Republicans are also still angry over the 2013 scandal involving the targeting by the IRS of some conservative nonprofit political groups.
"We deliberately lowered the IRS funding to a level that will make the IRS think twice about what you are doing and why you are doing it because you don't have a single dime to spare on anything frivolous or foolhardy or even mediocre," said Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee that oversees the IRS, at a hearing last month.
Crenshaw and the GOP leaders of the comparable Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the IRS are critical of the Obama administration's proposed 2016 budget for the IRS, which would increase by $2 billion or 18 percent.
But Koskinen said the budget cuts cause more than poor service. This year's reductions are expected to result in a loss of $2 billion in taxes that otherwise would have been collected, he said.
"It's a classic example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish," Koskinen said.