As part of cost-cutting measures, the Internal Revenue Service is forging ahead with plans to close some of its Taxpayer Assistance Centers, which provide walk-in service for taxpayers on tax law, tax return preparation and account inquiry resolution via face-to-face meetings with IRS employees.

The IRS, which currently operates 400 Taxpayer Assistance Centers, will close 68 of those locations this fall. The agency said that the decision on which centers to close was based on several criteria, including workload considerations, geographic factors, demographics, employee costs and facility costs.

IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson had disclosed the agency's service cut plans in April during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the 2006 IRS budget.

"The walk-in sites are our most costly service vehicle, and we find taxpayers prefer to use our toll-free phone lines where their questions can be routed to subject matter experts," Everson said. "Like most other federal agencies, we're being asked to create efficiencies and be responsible with taxpayers' dollars. Using objective criteria, we're creating these efficiencies where they'll have the least impact on good service."

Out of 2,300 employees who operate the TACs nationwide, the agency said that fewer than 450 employees are located in the affected centers. Qualifying employees may be offered early-out retirements and buyouts, as the IRS budget allows. Most employees should be entitled to priority placement for other jobs within the IRS and other Treasury bureaus, the IRS said.

The IRS said that closures reflect the fact that more taxpayers are using its Web site and e-filing their returns, while the use of services with face-to-face interactions have declined. This year, the majority of individual tax returns -- 66.5 million --were filed electronically, marking the first time in history that e-filing outpaced paper returns.

The agency said that the closures will allow it to focus on "activities that provide the most efficient services."

The closures will help the IRS realize cost savings, the agency said, noting that the cost of preparing a tax return at a VITA site is $19, compared to $46 for the same return at a TAC. Downloading forms from the IRS Web site costs less than a dollar, while distributing a form at a TAC costs $9. It said that tax law questions can be answered through its toll-free lines at a cost of $11, while at a TAC, the cost is $22.

In fiscal 2004, visitors to TACs were down 1.26 million from the prior year, and down nearly 2 million from FY 2002. At the same time, the number of visits to its Web site, www.irs.gov, climbed 128 percent between fiscal 2002 and 2004. The use of "Where's My Refund," an on-line service that provides refund status information formerly available only by calling the toll-free line or visiting a TAC, was up 1,316 percent from FY 2002 to FY 2004.

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