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How the 'tax factory' gobbles up your '82 return

By David T. CookBusiness correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1983


If you think filling out forms is taxing, you should see the tedium at an IRS center One of life's little mysteries is what happens to your federal tax return after it gets dropped in the mailbox.

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If you live in one of three mid-Atlantic states or the District of Columbia, your return's fateful journey through the federal tax bureaucracy starts at a sprawling gray building in northeast Philadelphia whose industrial park neighbors include a Nabisco cookie plant.

What employees call the ''tax factory'' - and nine other Internal Revenue Service centers like it scattered around the United States - are being inundated with federal tax returns. Postal Service trucks start pulling through a barbed wire-topped gate here at 3 a.m. This week alone they'll disgorge an estimated 2. 5 million returns to be opened and scrutinized.

Besides being the object of taxpayer curiosity, Internal Revenue Service centers are the focus of some controversy. The centers rely heavily on a computer system designed 20 years ago which has been prone to repeated breakdowns, delaying the processing of returns.

IRS Commissioner Roscoe L. Egger Jr. has started a major program to bring the computers up to date. ''We are well on our way to reequipping all our service centers,'' he says. But he admits the IRS system will not approach state of the art ''for another 18 months to two years.''

And other IRS officials add that by the time the new computers are fully operational, they will already be at least half a generation behind the most up-to-date equipment at private companies.

While computers handle much of the required number crunching, 2,100 workers are also required in Philadelphia alone to process the mountains of paper, which punctuate a working space as large as six football fields. And although it may be small consolation for taxpayers, the drudgery of preparing a tax return is fully matched by the tedium of processing it.

For example, roughly 15 employees here spend their shift doing nothing but stamping an identifying number on each return. And some 200 workers spend all day punching data from tax returns - 45 or so an hour - into a computer terminal.

Some IRS employees do have a mischievous streak, despite an image of being steely-eyed individuals whose biggest joy is finding a misplaced decimal point. For instance, data-entry workers found that by repeatedly hitting a certain key on their computer terminals, they could cause the computer system to shut down.

''We have got a computer program now'' that identifies such game players, says Michael Kuntz, chief of the center's management staff.

The computer is also used to keep workers from browsing through the tax returns of other center employees or of famous people. The computer is programmed so that most employees cannot call up a co-worker's return. And an electronic record is kept of what tax documents an employee does examine to discourage unnecessary viewing of returns of prominent individuals - including Vice-President George Bush and several Cabinet members - which come here.

A return's journey through the center starts when a Postal Service truck backs into the loading dock in the wee hours of the morning. Soon the large gray trays containing hundreds of envelopes are wheeled from the loading dock into a sorting room.

A high-speed sorter then opens the envelopes at a clip of 30,000 an hour. At the same time, the machine ''reads'' the bar code printed on envelopes and shoots them to one of 15 bins according to the kind of return they contain - business, 1040, 1040 with farm income, and so forth.