Baltimore may have lost in the NFL derby, but hail to the IRS.
In sweeping changes aimed at improving the way it conducts its business -- from collections and audits to answering simple taxpayer questions -- the Internal Revenue Service plans to eliminate some service centers around the nation and consolidate work at others.
Baltimore was among the winners.
In a gradual implementation of the plan over several years, 70 customer service sites around the country will be reduced to 23 -- and Baltimore's service center will be among the survivors.
District IRS spokesman Domenic J. LaPonzina said last night that the change is good news for employees in the agency's Automated Collection Site in Owings Mills and the downtown customer service telephone operation because of the prospect of "additional training, job enrichment and perhaps promotional opportunities."
"Conceivably," he added, "there could be more jobs in Baltimore."
Officials said the operational changes announced by IRS Commissioner Margaret Milner Richardson address not only improvements in helping taxpayers, but also in stepping up taxpayer compliance with tax laws. The current compliance rate nationally is estimated at 82 percent, with a "tax gap" of $110 billion or more in obligations not being paid to the federal government.
As many as 10 million people fail to file tax returns each year.
"We have to address those problems, and to do that we're talking about reinvention of our tax system," Mr. LaPonzina said.
Among the changes, the current 10 tax processing centers would be reduced to five. Among those to be eliminated is the Philadelphia center, where Marylanders send their tax returns. The change will not take place this year, but area taxpayers eventually will be sending returns to Cincinnati instead.
For the most part, the consolidation plan can be carried out administratively, but Congress must register approval by means its annual appropriation to run the 115,000-employee agency. The IRS estimates the consolidation, which will affect 16,000 people, will save more than $250 million over 10 years.
Not affected, according to Mr. LaPonzina, are the system's 63 district offices -- at least one in each of the 50 states. The district office in Baltimore is responsible for Maryland and the District of Columbia.
The 23 customer service centers will be formed from the 70 existing operations, known as telephone contact sites, and the 10 existing taxprocessing centers. As a result, no significant new construction will be required.
All 10 of the existing tax processing centers will become customer service centers, but only five of them will continue to process paper returns.
Factors involved in picking sites like Baltimore for customer service centers, Mr. LaPonzina said, included the quality of performance of existing offices in past years, geographic location, the expandability of facilities and the cost of doing busi ness -- including the cost of living and lease costs.
"We hope to reach the point where the IRS offers taxpayers instant access to relevant account information and will be able to resolve 95 percent of calls on first contact," Mr. LaPonzina said.
And as for revenue, he said, the agency expects to bring in an additional $50 billion annually by 2001 and raise the compliance rate to 90 percent.