The Internal Revenue Service has been improving its timeliness in responding to taxpayer calls thanks to some extra money from Congress this year.

“So far this filing season, the level of service on our toll-free help lines is over 70 percent, and the average for the entire filing season will probably be at or above 65 percent, which is a vast improvement over last year,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told reporters during a speech last week at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Last December Congress approved $290 million in additional funding for the IRS for fiscal year 2016, earmarking the funds for improving taxpayer service, strengthening cybersecurity and expanding efforts against identity theft. Koskinen noted this was the first time in six years that the IRS has received significant additional funding. The IRS was able to use the money to hire 1,000 temporary employees for tax season.

However, the extra workers aren't going to be around after tax season, and many of the IRS's current full-time employees are retiring. Koskinen warned that service levels are probably going to decline again from the 70 percent this tax season.

“Once the seasonal employees are gone, we can expect that number to drop significantly, and it will probably be around 47 percent for the full year,” he said. “Even that’s much better than last year, but we want everybody to understand that it’s still not where we want it to be. If we received the President’s Fiscal 2017 budget request, our phone level of service would be up to 75 percent next year for the entire year.”

He noted that the IRS's budget for the current fiscal year is still $900 million below what it was in 2010. As a result, the IRS is doing fewer audits and bringing in less revenue for the government.

“The portion of our full-time workforce that has been lost since 2010 includes over 5,000 key enforcement personnel,” said Koskinen. “These are the people who audit returns and perform collection activities, as well as the special agents in our Criminal Investigation division who investigate stolen identity refund fraud and other tax-related crimes. As you might imagine, these staffing losses have translated into a steady decline in the number of individual audits over the past six years. Last year, in fact, we completed the fewest audits in a decade. Plus, our audit coverage rate in 2015 was the lowest since 2004. That trend line of fewer audits will continue this year.”

Koskinen acknowledged that the IRS is not the most popular of agencies, alluding to a recent survey by WalletHub (see our slideshow Taxpayers Speak!).

“I know the IRS is not anyone’s favorite government institution, and we will not win any popularity contests, especially in an election year,” he said. “In fact, a recent poll even showed that 12 percent of taxpayers liked Vladimir Putin better than the IRS. But don’t look for a shot of me on CNN, without a shirt, riding a horse.”

Paying taxes isn't popular either, he admitted.

“Even at the IRS we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that people enjoy paying taxes,” said Koskinen. “In fact, a recent poll showed that 27 percent of people would be willing to get an IRS tattoo to avoid paying taxes. As a public service announcement, I want to tell everyone that my tattoo has been totally ineffective on that score.”
 

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