GAO: IRS service bad--and getting worse

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets

Fewer taxpayers are getting through on the Internal Revenue Service hotline, their wait times for help has surged to 17 minutes, and 40 percent of those who write in questions wait over 45 days for an answer, a deterioration of taxpayer service that is just getting worse, according to a new government audit.

It's not much better for professional tax preparers seeking help, according to a new Government Accountability Office report on IRS taxpayer operations. The GAO found that just 73 percent of tax preparers who needed assistance from a live IRS official got through on the phone and their wait was an average of 22 minutes--19 minutes more than the wait in 2007.

And unfortunately for taxpayers, help is not on the way. The GAO found that the IRS doesn't have a plan that can fix the service breakdowns fast enough and Congress isn't expected to help out with more money.

The "IRS does not have a strategy to reverse declines in service," said Uncle Sam's auditor. "The federal government's tight budget environment makes any meaningful increase in resources for taxpayer service unlikely," it added.

There is good news, however, in their annual report.

-- Efficiency is up at the IRS.

-- The switch to automated filing and calling is working. In 2012, 82 percent of individual taxpayers filed electronically.

-- People are generally paying their overdue taxes. Of $13.8 billion owed last year, all but $4.4 billion has been paid.

But the GAO said that good news is offset with the service problems. Among them:

-- Only 68 percent of help calls to the IRS get through to a live person, down from 81 percent in 2007. Wait times have increased to 17 minutes, up from 4.6 minutes in 2007.

-- 40 percent of mailed in questions are answered after 45 days.

Said the GAO: "IRS's level of telephone service (the percentage of callers seeking live assistance who receive it) declined to 68 percent. In addition, of the 21 million pieces of paper correspondence IRS received, about 40 percent were considered overage (meaning that IRS did not respond within 45 days of receipt), an increase compared to last year. While IRS plans to continue to pursue efficiency gains, its strategy for future years does not specifically address how it plans to reverse these negative trends. Reversing the declines in telephone and correspondence services may require IRS to consider difficult tradeoffs, such as reassessing which phone calls IRS should answer with a live assistor and which it should not because automated services are available."