Not enough 'quality time' with the IRS? Some think so

Greg Gross
  • A forum in Harrisburg will highlight proposed changes to how taxpayers interact with the IRS
  • The IRS budget was slashed from $13.6 billion in 2010 to $11.2 billion this year
  • During the same time period, staffing was slashed by 13,000 workers from 94,600 in 2010 to 81,600 this year

Taxpayer advocates argue proposed changes to IRS services may keep some Americans from receiving answers to their tax questions.

Eric Loucks of York City dances and spins his Liberty Tax sign in Continental Square Wednesday, April 6, 2016. The federal government's tax collection agency is eyeing increasing its web services and encouraging taxpayers to go online for assistance. Since the traditional due date of April 15 falls on Emancipation Day, a public holiday in Washington, D.C., this year’s deadline was moved to Monday, April 18. John A. Pavoncello photo

As part of its Future State plan, the federal government's tax collection agency is eyeing increasing its web services and encouraging taxpayers to go online for assistance.

But advocates fear that could lead to reduced telephone and face-to-face services, which could prevent low-income, elderly and non-English-speaking taxpayers from getting answers to their queries.

"It's good they're updating the website, but it shouldn't be done at the expense of in-person and telephone services," said Robert Hamilton, an attorney who manages MidPenn Legal Services' Low Income Taxpayer Clinic. "A lot of (elderly residents) wouldn't be considered Internet savvy,"

Moving toward more web-based services also raises concerns that taxpayers could become more vulnerable to identity theft, he said.

The changes, as well as concerns, will be discussed during a forum Friday in Harrisburg.

Changes: The proposed changes are part of a yearslong process still in development that aims to move the IRS from its current state to its envisioned future state that includes more web-based tools.

"The IRS remains committed to providing the services these taxpayers need. For example, while the IRS will continue to offer more web-based services, taxpayers will still be able to call our toll-free helplines if that is their preferred method of receiving service from the IRS," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said during testimony before the Senate Finance Committee in February.

In recent years, the IRS has improved its website to better assist taxpayers who turn to it for help and to find out the status of their refunds. The "Where's my refund" tool was used 235 million times, and 86 percent of income tax returns were filed online last year, Koskinen said.

Deep budget cuts: Part of the move to increase web-based services stems from cost.

It costs the IRS between $40 and $60 to assist a taxpayer in person, but only $1 to interact online, according to Koskinen's testimony.

That savings could help the cash-strapped IRS, which has seen its budget slashed drastically since 2010, when Republicans won a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and started reducing the agency's budget.

When adjusted for inflation, the IRS budget for 2010 was $13.6 billion compared to $11.2 billion for 2016, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

During that same time period, staffing levels decreased by 13,000 workers, from 94,600 employees in 2010 to 81,600 this year, according to the center.

Forum: The Future State initiative will be discussed during a forum at 10 a.m. Friday at Harrisburg University Auditorium, 326 Market St.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, are co-hosting the event. Hamilton will be joined by three additional panelists, including an identity theft victim, to discuss their concerns about the changes.

Attendees will also be given an opportunity to give their feedback.

— Reach Greg Gross at