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​Tax question? Don't hold your breath for the IRS

Here's a tip for getting ready for tax day: Don't hold your breath waiting to get through to an IRS representative.

IRS commissioner John Koskinen provided a frank assessment of the agency's failings at a speech on Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., noting that six out of 10 callers can't get through to a customer service representative.

Taxpayers this year are receiving "truly an abysmal level of service," he added.

While it might seem odd that the IRS commissioner is bashing his own agency, he has a clear reason for his negativity: He pointed the finger at Congress for cutting its budget, leaving the tax authority at its lowest funding level since 2008. Koskinen added that when those numbers are adjusted for inflation, the budget "is now comparable to where we were in 1998," while the agency is now procession millions more tax filings because of population growth.

"There's never a good hold time," said Michael Oristian, co-founder of of a callback service called CallPromise, which companies can use to schedule return calls for customer service. "It's to be expected that there would be some sort of increase in hold times. but if they aren't taking those calls it's a disservice to the tax payers."

Oristian noted that his company's Lucyphone service, an application that consumers use to handle the wait times for customer service lines, has booked 10,000 calls to the IRS in the past month, with about 70 percent of those calls getting hung up on by the agency.

The long wait times are probably not going to gain much sympathy from tax filers, who are counting down the days until the April 15 filing deadline. Federal returns have an added layer of complexity this year, thanks to the tax implications of Obamacare, while the tax code is, as always, incredibly complex. On top of that, fraudulent filings are on the rise, creating headaches and tangled returns for victims of those scams.

The IRS provides a tip for trying to get answers: Avoid the phone and instead search for information on its site. Starting with the Presidents Day holiday, the agency receives a surge in the number of calls from befuddled consumers. Wait times for callers have stretched to about 30 minutes, up from about 12 minutes in 2011.

Part of the problem is that the IRS has shed 13,000 of workers since 2010, while a hiring freeze means it's not adding younger workers who can be trained to replace well-informed older workers, Koskinen said. The long-term trend is even steeper, with the agency losing more than 30,000 full-time employees since 1992.

"As highly skilled employees retire, we need to replace them with the next generation of talented, dedicated people," he noted. "But that is becoming harder and harder to do, in large part as the result of the hiring freeze we have been forced to maintain for the last several years to absorb the significant cuts to our budget since 2010."

About half of the IRS' employees are now over 50 years old, and about one-quarter of its staff will be eligible to retire next year, he added. On the other hand, only 3 percent of its workforce is under 30 years old. Because it takes years to train a tax auditor, replacing the older staff isn't as easy as hiring in other industries, he said.

That means the agency is facing its own "version of the baby bust," Koskinen said.

Further cuts to the IRS budget will only hurt taxpayers and threatens to "destroy the ability of the IRS to discharge its fundamental responsibilities," he said.

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