Did Department of Taxation turn the corner on customer service?

It’s about time for our annual review of the Department of Taxation and its customer service. Let’s see how the department did in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, as reflected in the department’s annual report.

One notable improvement has been in the department’s call answer rate. If a practitioner or a taxpayer picks up the phone and calls the department with a question, will a department employee pick up the phone at all? Last year the probability that the department would answer the call was 43 percent, less than half. In 2016 it jumped to 72 percent. It’s a big improvement, but it still leaves one of four callers in the dust.

If the department is unable to pick up the phone, at a minimum there should be published guidance available so taxpayers can find their answers, either by themselves or with the help of tax professionals. Tax practitioners should be able to advise their clients on what that guidance says, and in this way can help get the word out where the department needs it most.

We counted different kinds of administrative guidance and saw the total dropping consistently over the last several years, but there was an uptick in 2016. We also note that the department recently put up for public hearing a few meaty packages of administrative rules, which should help taxpayers and practitioners.

The number of taxpayers who the department assisted in person tumbled an average 10 percent a year during 2011-15. The number rose a little in 2016, snapping the streak. The department has said more taxpayers are e-filing and doing other things electronically, so they don’t have to visit the department. We were worried that the drop might be due to taxpayers getting nowhere and giving up.

We wish that the department will continue to provide robust customer service, including coming out with timely guidance, and we hope that the legislative and executive branches of government can provide adequate resources for the department to do so.

* Tom Yamachika is president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.