THE INTERNAL Revenue Service plans to close half of its walk-in help centers in Maryland by Sept. 30.
The four closures, in Salisbury, Wheaton, Frederick and Annapolis, will affect 21 workers and are part of an effort to reduce IRS customer service costs nationwide and shift resources into enforcement.
Together, the Taxpayer Assistance Centers set for closure handle 46.3 percent of the state's workload, but IRS spokesman James Dupree said that the number of customers served at each of Maryland's affected offices is "not available." The Wheaton office handles the most clients, 21.3 percent of the state's workload. Traffic and workload at the centers were two criteria used to justify each closing, according to the IRS Web site.
"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," IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said in a statement.
Everson also said that he is requesting permission to offer early retirement and buyouts to employees at the 68 affected Taxpayer Assistance Centers nationwide. That's about one-fifth of the country's 400 centers, where people receive help filling out IRS forms, use computers, get tax-law questions answered or pay off balances.
Since the 1980s, a combination of changing demographics, budget cuts and competing priorities has made it difficult for the IRS to strike a balance between serving customers and catching cheats.
From 1988 to 2003, the volume of individual returns rose 26 percent, while the permanent staff of the IRS shrank by almost one-third. In the 1990s, attention to agency abuses and criticism from Congress led President Clinton to launch a more "taxpayer-friendly" agency.
Now, the agency is trying to reverse spiraling audit rates.
The IRS must trim 1 percent of its service budget during fiscal year 2006, or about $134 million, according to the National Treasury Employees Union.
In addition to the Taxpayer Assistance Center closures, phone centers in Boston, Chicago and Houston will close, and hours will be scaled back at 26 sites, to 12-hour service from 15-hour service. These changes are to save about $45 million.
However, Colleen Kelley, president of the union, is warning employees that more changes will be necessary to achieve the rest of the savings.
Everson said that the waning need for face-to-face help in favor of the Internet and phone justifies the closures. About 7.7 million people visited the centers for help during fiscal 2004, a 19 percent drop in two years, while visits to www.irs.gov rose 128 percent to 153 million, according to agency data.
"In Wheaton, a lot of non-English-speaking customers use the center, and a lot of retirees," said Pat Powell, an NTEU local union chief and auditor. "I see lines wherever I go during filing season."
National taxpayer advocate Nina Olson told Congress in May that previous cuts in services may skew IRS figures on the use of the walk-in centers. She said that her employees, who help taxpayers resolve disputes with the IRS, have been deluged with requests for copies of tax returns and account records after Taxpayer Assistance Centers stopped providing them last year.
"The IRS overestimates taxpayers' ability or willingness to conduct complex financial transactions in an electronic or self-service format," Olson said. "While some in today's society are comfortable with banking online, many are not. ... The IRS simply does not know what services various parts of our population need delivered in a face-to-face environment."
Base closings' effect
A lot has been written about the 6,600 defense jobs expected to come to Maryland if the Pentagon wins approval to close 180 military installations nationwide and consolidate some programs here.
Although there is little doubt that Maryland will benefit from the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process, the size of the gain has yet to be decided, and the overall outlook for the Baltimore-Washington corridor is still unclear.
The Pentagon's plan is thousands of pages long, and the analysis of its impact is sliced up different ways in different parts of the report.
One section looks at the changes from a quality-of-life standpoint. Will reassigned workers receive better health care, be able to send their children to better public schools, have less-clogged roads or need to worry less about crime?
The relocation of the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency from Bethesda to Fort Belvoir, Va., should have no "adverse impact" on workers, according to the report. But workers transferring from Fort Monmouth, N.J., to Aberdeen Proving Ground would reap better medical care and a lower cost of living, while also facing poorer transportation options and more concerns about safety.
Another section looks at the gains numerically on a state-by-state basis, focusing only on the jobs that the BRAC commission controls: military and civilian personnel and mission contractors.
Mission contractors are non-government employees whose assignments are virtually identical to those of federal workers and whose roles directly relate to military defense, such as designing the next generation of Humvees. Maryland's projected 6,600 new jobs - frequently cited in media reports - come from this analysis.
Evaluating the changes based on metropolitan region and the ripple effort from "indirect jobs" such as local restaurants and service businesses, creates an even a rosier picture for Baltimore.
From this perspective, Washington loses 25,016 jobs, more than any other metro area in the country, while Baltimore gains 14,722 jobs, more than any other region, according to the report.
These figures include federal jobs, mission contractors and indirect jobs, such as the family that runs the deli next door or the custodian who vacuums the floors.
However, Stephen Fuller, an economist at George Mason University, said that he is uncomfortable relying on "indirect" data because it is nothing more than a "mathematical exercise."
"Those numbers are just less certain than the jobs that BRAC actually controls," he said. "It's assuming that the deli next door is actually lost, instead of just moving down the road or losing some clients, or that the leased space would become vacant rather than the custodian continuing to clean it for a new tenant."
The writer welcomes your story ideas and comments. She can be reached at melis email@example.com or 410-715-2885. Back issues of Federal Workers can be found at www.baltimoresun.com/federal.