IRS walks out on walk-ins

The Internal Revenue Service will close 68 out of 400 walk-in centers this fall because more people now use online tax services, agency officials say.

"Compared to the past, fewer taxpayers are choosing to write or call us," IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said in a statement. "Even fewer taxpayers are using our walk-in taxpayer assistance centers."

Slightly more than half of all returns filed through April 22 were done electronically, an increase of 11 percent compared to the same period last year. The agency is required under the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 to receive 80 percent of tax returns electronically by 2007.

Most of the targeted centers are on the coasts. The decision, which affects about 450 employees, will hurt the quality of customer service and result in lower rates of tax compliance, said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Kelley described the office closures as unwise.

Data collected by the tax agency indicates a 19 percent decrease in walk-in customers from fiscal 2002 through fiscal 2004 – from about 9.5 million people to 7.7 million people. Visits to the IRS site increased 128 percent during that same period, according to tax agency figures.

NTEU argues that the IRS' walk-in statistics are inaccurate.

Taxpayer assistance is cheaper via the Internet or telephone costs less than a walk-in visit, according to tax agency officials. Downloading forms from the IRS Web site costs the tax agency less than one-ninth the expense of distributing them at assistance center, the IRS says. Questions about taxes can also be handled less expensively and more accurately over the phone via a toll-free number than in person, the IRS states.

Choosing which of the assistance centers to close was done mostly on the basis of the centers' workload, location and demographics, with "only one-third of the weighting to labor and facilities costs," an IRS release states.

The IRS has asked for a larger budget in fiscal 2006. Tax officials want $10.9 billion, a 3.7 increase. But all of that additional money would pay for tax enforcement efforts. Money for taxpayer services and its ongoing modernization efforts is set to decline, by about 1 and 2 percent respectively.

The centers’ closure will have no effect on customer service, Everson said. Affected employees may receive early-out or buy-out offers and will have priority for other open IRS jobs, he added.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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