FEMA’s secret weapon in the event of a disaster? Theirs

In 2005, in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, IRS officials believed they were handling more than half of the calls that came into FEMA.

Now the IRS is deploying more than 400 people to help Ian, mostly to respond to victims’ claims. It also sent a contingent of its Criminal Investigations Unit to Florida to help ensure the safety of the medical teams working there.

“When parts of the country face natural disasters, IRS employees routinely answer the call to go beyond their usual work,” said Natasha Sarin, tax policy and enforcement adviser. works at the Treasury Department.

This is one of the most extensive jobs the agency is asked to do and has little to do with its main job of administering the tax code.

Disaster assistance is a point of pride for many at the IRS — though it has raised some eyebrows when many taxpayers struggle to reach someone on the phone at the agency for their tax questions.

It may also be embarrassing this political season for Republicans who have harshly criticized the department following a historic $80 billion infusion that Democrats recently imposed as part of their climate, health care, and health care legislation. and taxation.

Among them: Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who wrote an open letter in August accusing him of plotting to build a “super police” willing to kill average Americans because of their taxes. His constituents are now aided by the IRS.

Scott is “grateful for every American at the local, state and federal level who is working on response and recovery efforts,” his spokesperson McKinley Lewis said in a statement.

“None of that changes his opposition” to plans by Democrats to beef up the agency, which Lewis called “detached from the wants and needs of the American people.”

Republicans say repealing IRS funding will be the first thing they do if they return to power in November, though legislation unveiled Friday would leave part of the money Democrats allocate to services untouched taxpayers.

The IRS has been assisting FEMA for decades, so long as employees are trained in handling disaster-related issues. It’s not just because the IRS has so many customer service representatives on standby.

Disasters can generate many tax-related questions, said Nina Olson, former National Taxpayer Advocate, the IRS’ independent internal watchdog.

For example, small business owners often need tax details to apply for government loans, which they might not have if their business were destroyed.

“In order to get SBA loans, people need copies of their tax transcripts,” she said, referring to the Small Business Administration.

The IRS says it helped last year in two dozen disasters; since 2012, he estimates that he has answered 1.6 million related calls.

But the arrangement drew fire following the IRS’ failure to answer many people’s tax questions.

According to the National Taxpayer Advocate, only 11% of callers were able to reach someone on the phone last year, and those who did reach had to wait an average of 23 minutes.

IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said last year he had deployed up to 3,000 of the agency’s 15,000 customer service representatives to disasters.

Some tax practitioners say they’re having trouble reaching the agency right now, before the Oct. 17 deadline for people who have applied for filing extensions, and wonder if Hurricane Ian is part of the reason.

With climate change making natural disasters more frequent, Olson wonders how long the IRS’ arrangement with FEMA can last.

“You’re doing a great public service to FEMA, but what about the American taxpayers who can’t pass? ” she says.

“It’s no longer a good use of the IRS to do another agency’s job when you see the level of natural disasters we have.”

FEMA should take over the task of answering calls from victims, she said.

But these complaints come even as the Biden administration is now in the midst of a major effort to bolster the IRS’ ability to respond to the public.

The agency won a 9% budget increase earlier this year to improve taxpayer services and hired 5,000 people to help answer the phones.

That was before the $80 billion Democrats passed, which includes an additional $1.9 billion to improve the service. The administration announced last month that it would hire 5,000 more people to answer the phones, promising that 85% of callers would make it through the next filing season. Average wait times will be reduced to 15 minutes, he says.

“The IRS has already been working hard to recruit staff to achieve these goals – to enter the next filing season with more customer service representatives available to answer the phones than at any time in its history,” said Sarin.

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