IG faults locations of taxpayer assistance centers

IRS field facilities not serving optimal number of return filers who have questions, says Treasury watchdog.

With April 15 right around the corner, taxpayers across the country may have questions about preparing their return or abiding by the government's complex tax laws and regulations.

But a new watchdog report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration finds that the Internal Revenue Service's free taxpayer assistance centers are not optimally located and are often out of easy reach for many Americans.

"The important role that taxpayer assistance centers provide the American people cannot be overstated," said Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George in a report dated Feb. 11 but released on Wednesday. "It is clear that most people will pay what they owe if they can figure out what is due to the IRS. It is imperative that the IRS takes every step to ensure that the taxpayers have the ability to ask questions and receive correct answers as they labor to fulfill this most important civic duty."

The IRS manages 401 assistance offices nationwide at which agency employees provide help interpreting tax rules, resolve inquiries about their tax liability and accept payments. More than 6.4 million Americans used the services last year, TIGTA said.

The report, however, found that 35 percent of the U.S. population -- or more than 100 million taxpayers -- do not live within 30 minutes of a taxpayer assistance center.

For example, the combined areas of the New England states -- Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont -- is one-fourth the size of Texas and has 10 million fewer people than does the Lone Star State. But Texas has seven fewer assistance centers than the Northeastern states combined.

Likewise, Michigan has seven centers to serve 10 million people and is more than twice the geographic size of West Virginia. Yet West Virginia has seven centers to provide service to 1.8 million people.

Other centers seem to cover overlapping geographic areas. The report said 28 percent of Americans live within 30 minutes of more than one taxpayer assistance center. The duplication in services is most obvious in Pennsylvania, where 10 of its 21 assistance offices cover much of the same population.

Although leases expired for 119 centers in fiscal 2008 and 2009, the IRS has no immediate plans to combine, relocate, or close locations, citing "budgetary constraints and legislative concerns."

Those concerns have "caused the IRS to delay conducting any cost-benefit or return on investment analyses needed to make any recommendations regarding combining, relocating or closing the TACs," the report said.

The IRS uses nine criteria to determine the best locations for each center, among them population size and the percentage of residents who are elderly, disabled, do not speak English, or who have less than a high school diploma. A prior IG audit on the taxpayer assistance center program found that information used to make decisions and support location changes was either incorrect, absent, or based on incomplete data.

In a response to a draft of the report, the IRS conceded that most of its centers have not changed locations since fiscal 2000 and have failed to keep pace with shifts in population and demographics. But Richard Byrd Jr., commissioner of the IRS wage and investment division, said agency employees have compensated by visiting volunteer locations, holding public seminars and hosting open houses in every state.

"The IRS will work to identify opportunities to better align the TACs with taxpayer needs on a case-by-case basis as leases expire and/or events occur that require unplanned relocations," Byrd wrote.

In 2005, the IRS announced plans to close some of its centers to create efficiencies and reduce costs. But Congress questioned the agency's estimated savings and prevented the closures.

One possible solution now being considered, the IG said, is having the IRS partner with underutilized U.S. Postal Service locations to share space and costs.