AICPA tax advocacy committee members said Wednesday they were encouraged after two days of meetings with key members of Congress and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen that the Service can provide more responsive and modern service to taxpayers and practitioners.
The “fly-in” was intended to highlight dissatisfaction by practitioners and taxpayers with the IRS’s admittedly unacceptable levels of service and CPAs’ potential role in improving the IRS in that and other ways.
The AICPA representatives were Troy K. Lewis, manager of Lewis & Associates CPAs LLC and chair of the AICPA’s Tax Executive Committee; Jeffrey A. Porter, owner of Porter & Associates CPAs and a member of the IRS Advocacy & Relations Committee; Annette Nellen, professor and director of the MST program at San José State University and vice chair of the Tax Executive Committee; and Michael P. Dolan, national director of IRS policies and dispute resolution at KPMG and a member of the IRS Advocacy & Relations Committee. Dolan also is a former deputy commissioner and acting commissioner of the IRS.
On Capitol Hill, they met with several key members and staff of the House Ways & Means and Appropriations committees and the Senate Finance Committee.
The discussions included effective use of the $290 million increase in IRS funding—most of it earmarked for taxpayer service—Congress approved for fiscal 2016 on Dec. 18 in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, P.L. 114-113. However, the increase was only 3% more than the 2015 funding level, which Koskinen has said had been cut by $1.2 billion, leaving the IRS at its lowest funding level since 2008 (see prior coverage).
Koskinen has blamed the cuts for poor telephone assistance to taxpayers during the 2015 filing season. Then, only 38% of calls to the IRS’s toll-free line were answered, after taxpayers waited on hold for an average throughout filing season of 30 minutes. The so-called Practitioner Priority Service phone line also fared poorly, with only a 48% average answer rate (with weekly averages dropping below 36%) and an average hold time for those who did get through of nearly 47 minutes (one week, it was 82 minutes), according to National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson’s most recent annual report to Congress.
The IRS also has been falling behind in answering its mail—an issue of importance to CPAs. Olson reported that the Service's ability to timely process taxpayer correspondence has slipped in recent years.
In response to these and other administrative problems, the AICPA Council passed a resolution last May calling upon national policymakers to create an “objective, bi-partisan forum” in which stakeholders could recommend ways for the IRS to become “a modern-functioning, evolutionary, and respected federal agency for the 21st Century.”
The fly-in meetings started a path toward that solution, Porter said, adding that Congressional members appeared receptive toward the ideas he and the others presented.
“I think they were very effective,” Porter said of the meetings. “They gave us the opportunity to express from a practitioner standpoint and, from all different sizes of firms, perspectives on the issues that the IRS service levels are creating in our firms.”
Both Porter and Lewis said poor telephone service and slow correspondence had caused difficulties in their practices and that they had heard similar reports from other CPAs. Lewis said he’d waited on the phone for hours for an answer on a relatively simple issue. Resorting to postal mail took five months for a resolution in one instance.
The lapses of service are also symptoms of more systemic considerations that the fly-in and follow-up efforts are intended to help address, he said.
“The real issue is, where are we going to be 10 years from now?” Lewis said. “We’re dealing with an organization that’s stuck in the 1980s.”
For the IRS to interact with taxpayers in the same ways as financial institutions and other businesses do with their customers will take not just increased funding but vision—to which CPAs bring an essential perspective, he said.
“Just like any for-profit business, an owner is going to be penny-wise and pound-foolish if they simply construct what they think is in the customer’s best interest without talking to the customer,” Lewis said. “The best way to resolve this problem and to envision where they need to be is simply to talk to the customers and those who know best. There’s probably no one more close to the front lines than the CPA.”
While it’s too early to tell if IRS service in the current tax season will be better than last year, Porter said he was told the additional funding will help—although likely not immediately, given the time required to recruit and train employees.
“I think they know it’s going to be a process,” he said.
—Paul Bonner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Tax Adviser senior editor.