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A Long Way to Go for a Refund

By John Kelly
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page C11

D id somebody at the IRS flunk geography? I live in Virginia and for as long as I can remember I've been sending my federal tax returns to Philadelphia. This year we're told to send them all the way out to California. If you look at how the states are grouped, all of the other states file to cities near their geographic location. Returns from D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey go to Philadelphia. Virginia returns go to Fresno, along with all of the western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. This seems like it will put a major and unnecessary burden on the U.S. Postal Service. Will this delay my refund?

Richard Woodrum, Annandale

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Refund? You think that after questioning the wisdom of the Internal Revenue Service you're going to get a refund?

That sound you hear is the IRS's black helicopter being fueled. Soon it will be hovering over your house as IRS field agents rappel down, their adding machines strapped to their backs. Let the audit begin.

Why send a Virginia return to California?

"It's a workforce/workload issue," said the IRS's Anthony Burke. Returns are shifted to different processing centers based on which ones can accommodate what level of work. It will not delay any refunds, Anthony promised.

In 1965, tax returns were processed at seven IRS centers. That number rose gradually to 10. Of those 10, only seven (Atlanta; Andover, Mass.; Philadelphia; Austin; Fresno; Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis) process individual tax returns.

Last year, Virginia returns went to Memphis. This year it's Fresno.

"Really, this is just their attempt to balance workloads and move those individual returns to whatever center has the capacity to do them," said Tom Ochsenschlager, vice president of taxation at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

The IRS's Anthony calls this rejiggering of tax forms across the country "a work in progress. We adjust as we anticipate the volumes. We are working toward having fewer centers that specialize in individual tax returns."

Those other centers will concentrate on corporate returns and the like.

There might come a day when people don't mail their returns at all. Anthony said that last year, nearly half of the country's 132 million returns were filed electronically. "E-filing" allows taxpayers to get a refund direct-deposited in half the time it would take for a paper check to be mailed.

If someone were inclined to find humor in the ways of the IRS -- and Answer Man would like to emphasize that he is not so inclined, has never been so inclined and will never be so inclined -- he or she might note that Ohio tax returns are sent to Tennessee while Tennessee returns are sent to . . . Texas.

Texas returns also are sent to Texas.

Massachusetts returns are sent to Andover, as are those from the rest of New England -- except for Rhode Island, whose returns are sent to Atlanta, and Connecticut, whose returns are sent to Kansas City.

Art Auerbach is a certified public accountant at Goodman & Co. in Tysons Corner. Doesn't he find it sort of funny that Ohio returns are sent to Tennessee while Tennessee returns aren't -- sent to Tennessee, that is?

"I've been at this for 46 years, and none of this stuff is funny anymore," Art said. "The government works in mysterious ways."

Highways, Revisited

Last week, Answer Man mentioned that only two interstate highways have traffic lights. Both I-5 in Portland, Ore., and our own I-495 at the Wilson Bridge use lights to stop traffic when bridges are raised.

The entire "road geek" nation rose up as one to smite Answer Man. (It is okay to use the expression road geek because that is what they call themselves.) The road geeks pointed out many other interstates with traffic lights, including I-78 in Jersey City (near the Holland Tunnel), I-180 in Cheyenne, Wyo. (a freakish little spur off I-80) and I-585 in Spartanburg, S.C. ("It is unknown why" this is labeled an interstate, one road geek Web site noted).

Answer Man apologizes for not being as entirely correct as he could have been.

Many readers also said that I-70 in Breezewood, Pa., has stoplights. Breezewood is where traffic between I-70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike (which is also signed I-70) grinds to a halt every major holiday. It is so dependably notorious that major media organizations dispatch reporters there each Thanksgiving to perch like vultures and interview fuming motorists.

But, said the Federal Highway Administration's Richard Weingroff, the traffic signal-bedecked roadway in Breezewood is not technically an interstate. For reasons having to do with the way federal highway funds are allocated, and who must pay for interchanges between roads, I-70 ends and then picks up again at the turnpike. The segment connecting them is known as Route 30.

"Clearly, that part of it is not an interstate," Richard said. "It may be frustrating. It may be irritating. But it's not an interstate."

My assistant, Julia Feldmeier, helped research this column. Answer Man can see the bottom of the Answer Man question bin. Send your queries about the Washington area to him at answerman@washpost.com. Or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include your name and the town you live in.

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