This time of year, not many people willingly go to see the IRS. But there I was, standing on the second floor of the agency's new Philadelphia operations in the former 30th Street Post Office.
I was invited, not summoned, as the IRS sought to mark the completion of a decade-long effort to move nearly 5,000 workers from Northeast Philadelphia into a $252 million rehab of the 862,000-square-foot post office building.
The last time I'd visited the 30th Street Post Office was some April 15th evening when I (and half of the city) needed to mail a federal income-tax return. Ah, the anxiety of those days before electronic filing.
When I mentioned that to IRS spokesman William Cressman Jr., he told me those envelopes on which we so desperately needed that April 15 postmark were loaded into trailers and trucked up to the IRS's complex on Roosevelt Boulevard, where they were unloaded, sorted and processed.
Tax software and e-filing changed all of that. Electronic files replaced paperwork. The need for computer servers supplanted the need for loading docks.
The numbers tell the story. In 2010, there were 142.45 million individual returns filed - 69 percent of them were filed electronically. So far this year, as of March 18, the IRS had received 75.27 million individual returns, and 87 percent had been submitted electronically.
The workflow had changed dramatically in a decade, but the IRS's seven-building former factory complex in Northeast Philadelphia had changed very little since it opened there on March 25, 1964. At its employment peak, the Philadelphia Service Center had a workforce of 9,400 people.
Today, nearly 5,000 fit into the former Post Office building that the IRS, the General Services Administration, the National Treasury Employees Union, and developer Brandywine Realty Trust redesigned from scratch and looks as much like corporate America as it does Big Government.
About 2,400 work in compliance services, 1,600 in accounts management, and about 900 in other functions, including criminal investigations, training, and taxpayer advocacy. There is a child-care center, cafeteria, credit union, and fitness center, as well as a 1,600-space parking garage.
At Tuesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony, Elizabeth Tucker, the IRS deputy commissioner for operations support, called the new Philadelphia campus "truly the showplace of the 700-plus buildings" the agency occupies.
Tucker, one of the highest-ranking officials at the IRS, made her remarks as sunshine beamed through a long skylight. A 26-year IRS employee, she noted that there were many windowless areas at the former complex where workers never saw the sun.
Even as Tucker called this the finest IRS facility, she was mindful of the difficult budget debate going on in Washington, D.C. While the IRS collected $2.3 trillion in revenue in the last fiscal year, its $12.4 billion budget is certainly not untouchable.
Philadelphia was able to keep nearly 5,000 federal jobs within the city limits through a complex public-private partnership that had several players, including the neighboring University of Pennsylvania. But Tucker reminded those present that "these are tough jobs" - people the government employs to make sure taxpayers are paying what they owe and going after those who don't.
"These men and women of Philadelphia are doing a tremendous job ensuring the fairness and efficiency of our tax system, which is the best in the world," said Tucker, in a line that must be a staple of budget hearings.
Fear of the IRS is inevitably expressed in humor. And most speakers had some wisecrack to lob, such as City Commerce Director Alan Greenberger who, while happy that Philadelphia retained the IRS jobs, seemed more relieved to hear from his accountant that he'd overpaid his federal income taxes.
University of Pennsylvania executive vice president Craig Carnaroli had the best line. "Let me say welcome to the IRS. When you are looking for someone to audit, look east," he said, referring to Philadelphia's central business district. "When you're looking to have fun, look west."
Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See his blog at www.phillyinc.biz .