WASHINGTON – The Internal Revenue Service (search) announced plans Friday to close 68 taxpayer assistance centers and shift more customer service to telephone help lines and volunteer programs.
The changes anticipate cuts to the tax agency's budget for customer service next year. IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said taxpayers increasingly look for telephone and online tax help, which can be more accurate and less expensive.
"One of the greatest problems in government is that government never closes. It continues to limp along and try to do everything," IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said in an interview. "What we're trying to do is recognize where things are growing."
To meet the expected cut to its customer service budget, the IRS also plans to reduce toll-free telephone assistance from 15 hours to 12 hours a day. Everson said taxpayers will notice no difference in waiting times.
The tax agency plans to save money by ending a program that let taxpayers with very simple tax returns (search) file over the telephone, a program that fewer taxpayers use each year.
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the announced changes do not save enough money to meet the proposed budget reductions and more drastic service and job cuts might be on the way.
"We think this is probably just the beginning of the cuts that they're going to try to make, and I'm telling employees that," she said.
Everson said additional changes won't effect taxpayer services unless lawmakers do not approve the more than $10 billion budget that the president requested.
"My biggest concern here is not that we're making these reductions," Everson said. "My concern here is that Congress will not provide all the money that the president's requested."
Taxpayers can visit taxpayer assistance sites to solve problems with their tax accounts, ask questions about tax laws (search) or pick up forms and instructions. Low-income taxpayers can get help preparing a tax return.
The IRS said the taxpayer assistance centers are the most expensive type of customer service the agency offers, and many questions can be answered more accurately by routing taxpayers to experts over the telephone.
Critics have urged the IRS to reconsider its decision to close the centers, fearing that low-income and elderly taxpayers, along with those who have limited English skills, will not be able to get help with complex tax issues without the sites.
The IRS said fewer people visit the 400 sites for face-to-face tax help, and some of those sites had primarily distributed forms that could be picked up at libraries and post offices or downloaded from the IRS Web site.
More than 7.6 million people used the walk-in sites last year, down from almost 9 million the year before. Electronically filed tax returns outpaced paper returns for the first time last year.
The IRS increasingly encourages taxpayers looking for face-to-face help with tax return preparation to visit a volunteer site run by nonprofit groups during the filing season. Many of those groups get training from the IRS.
The closures effect cities in 29 states from Maine to California. The IRS said it tried to minimize its impact on taxpayers by weighing factors that include taxpayer usage, facility costs and the number of volunteer sites in the region.
Areas with large numbers of low-income families and elderly taxpayers were less likely to be closed, Everson said.