"Advocate" Tells Congress: Make Taxpayers Happier So They'll Pay More

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We didn't know there was such a thing as a National Taxpayer Advocate, but apparently her name is Nina E. Olson, and she has reported to Congress that the IRS has some customer service issues that should be corrected.

That excited us, because our number one issue is that they take too much from us, and we would be more satisfied as customers if they would take less. But this concern is not addressed in Olson's report.

Mostly what she wants is better service for us so we will be better prepared, logistically and psychologically, to deliver "voluntary compliance" with the IRS. The first item in her list of "Most Serious Problems Encountered by Taxpayers" is... "IRS Toll-Free Telephone Service Is Declining."

IRS's goal for 2010 is to answer 71.2 percent of taxpayer phone enquiries. That's about the rate of response when Congress overhauled IRS in 1998, and Olson says it's not good enough, and wants a staff-up and dedicated lines for special problems.

Also, the IRS isn't taking enough account of delinquent taxpayers' unsecured debts, such as "credit cards, school loans, or medical and hospital bills," when they attach "one-size-fits all" liens and figure payment plans, and thus "appears to undermine taxpayers' efforts to become compliant." She prescribes a more "holistic approach" that "makes a difference in a taxpayer's compliance behavior over time."

Olson acknowledges that "Federal Tax Liens Wreak Havoc on Low Income Taxpayers' Financial Future" and seeks a "low income taxpayer strategy" to get them better served. She also seeks better service for overseas filers, who may not be, as we have long suspected, willfully attempting to evade paying taxes from their offshore havens, but simply suffering from "Lack of Awareness of Return Filing Obligations" because they are deprived of "efficient and accessible taxpayer service."

Oh, there's a shout out to New York, too: Olson reports that after a recent undercover investigation of tax preparers, the state tax commissioner found fraud in about 40 percent of their visits and "an epidemic of unethical and criminal behavior." Nationwide, Olson wants better vetting, training, and oversight of preparers.

Olson also pleads for a simpler tax code, bless her, and a revamp of the appeals process for contesting taxpayers, better e-services, more face-to-face as opposed to correspondence audits, etc.

Olson knows who she's talking to, and makes clear at every opportunity that better customer service means taxpayers pay more. For example, she says that because of customer service shortfalls, "in 2007 and 2008, the IRS had 'lost' about $32 billion in collection revenue." Those are the parts of the report we expect the legislators have highlighted, and maybe that'll get her recommendations approved. So -- if in April you're able to get through to the IRS help-line (or if in August they aren't liening you so hard you can't pay the gas bill), thank Nina Olson.

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