68 Walk-In Offices Under IRS Budget Knife

By Stephen Barr
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Like many parts of the government, the Internal Revenue Service is all about balance: How to balance programs that provide taxpayer services against those that crack down on tax cheats; how to hold down costs but still bring in revenue.

On Friday, the IRS announced that it would close 68 offices, including four in Maryland and two in Virginia, where taxpayers can walk in for face-to-face help with their tax returns and questions. The plan will put 434 employees at risk of losing their jobs, including 43 in Maryland and Virginia.

"We're being asked to create efficiencies and be responsible with taxpayers' dollars," said Mark W. Everson , IRS commissioner. The office closings, he said, will have "the least impact on good service."

Colleen M. Kelley , president of the National Treasury Employees Union, offered a different view: "The result of this unwise plan will be not only a sharp reduction in customer service but also a decline in taxpayer compliance with the tax laws."

As in many years, budget pressures are helping shape IRS decisions. The agency faces a 1 percent cut in funds for taxpayer services in fiscal 2006 and also needs to find the money to cover a pay raise for its 93,000 employees, higher rents and inflation. That means the IRS has to scramble to cut costs by $130 million to $150 million.

The plan to close the 68 Taxpayer Assistance Centers by Sept. 30 will create savings of about $45 million, perhaps a third of what the agency needs, Everson estimated.

The walk-in offices -- about 400 in all -- are the costliest customer service provided by the IRS. Everson pointed out that many taxpayer questions can be answered more accurately on the agency's toll-free telephone lines, he said. In addition, the IRS Web site ( http://www.irs.gov ) and volunteer assistance programs offer ways for people to obtain tax information, Everson said.

In a news release, the IRS said that walk-in contacts at the taxpayer centers declined by 19 percent between fiscal 2002 and 2004. Meanwhile, the number of toll-free calls answered increased by 7 percent, and the number of visits to its Internet site jumped by 128 percent.

The IRS also is paring back hours at 26 call sites, going to a 12-hour day, covering a period when 93 percent of calls come in. Phone centers in Boston, Chicago and Houston will close, placing 183 jobs at risk, Kelley said.

The IRS has worked for almost seven years on improving taxpayer services, and the agency hopes that selected cuts in that area will give it more flexibility to continue strengthening tax enforcement and management of its "business systems modernization," a multibillion-dollar technology project.

"I don't think there is a pendulum swing taking place here," Everson said in an interview. "It is more of a releveling of this. What you had before was a great effort to improve services and no effort to improve enforcement, and over time, enforcement deteriorated."

But Kelley said IRS budget projections suggest more cuts are coming in taxpayer services this year. The closing of walk-in centers will harm senior citizens, lower-income Americans, people with limited proficiency in English and those who are not familiar enough with tax requirements to navigate the Internet to find answers, she said.

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