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Calling the IRS: 11 minutes on hold

By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Internal Revenue Service is too busy trying to punish taxpayers instead of helping them navigate the complex tax system, according to a government official who watches out for taxpayers.

The report to Congress by Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson said that taxpayers looking for help from the IRS only get through on the phone 70% of the time, and have to wait 11 minutes for a response when they actually do get through.

"The IRS is failing to address the needs of taxpayers who are experiencing economic difficulties and has not revised collection policies that harm taxpayers, thereby undermining its goal of increasing voluntary compliance," Olson wrote.

Olson said the IRS has ramped up spending on "hard core" enforcement and handing out levies in recent years, while spending has declined on the type of services that help Americans understand how to pay their taxes. She said that seems misguided, because in many cases the IRS is punishing Americans who had a good tax history before falling into hard times because of the recession.

She said the real problem with compliance is the difficulty in negotiating an increasingly complex tax system. This is because payments from new programs -- including the stimulus, Making Work Pay, First-Time Homebuyer Credit and hybrid car credit -- have put added pressure on the IRS by creating a backlog of additional work.

"Many of these provisions have created taxpayer confusion, generated considerable telephone and correspondence volumes, ... caused IRS processing delays and programming problems, produced several refund fraud schemes and resulted in several spikes in the Taxpayer Advocate Service's caseload," wrote Olson.

She said the 70% response rate to taxpayer calls was actually an improvement, up from 53% in the prior year. That compared to an 87% response rate to calls five years ago.

The advocate acknowledged that the job of the IRS has gotten more difficult in recent years, causing the under-funded agency to strain under the added responsibilities of administering new services. She suggested that the IRS develop a strategic plan acknowledging its "dual role as part tax collector and part benefits administrator" in its effort to seek more funding.

IRS officials were not immediately available for comment. To top of page

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