Info office closes up shop 

Ever dreamed of having your questions about income taxes, HUD homes or Medicare answered by a real, live government agent, instead of needing to write away to Pueblo, Colo., for a pamphlet?

Well, Atlanta, you missed your chance. Last Wednesday, the misleadingly named U.S. General Store -- a sort-of in-person "Ask Jeeves" for government-related queries -- that had spent the past six years hidden away in the cavernous City Hall East, was officially closed. It was the only office of its kind in the country.

If you never heard of the place, you're not alone. The General Store was launched just before the Olympics as a pilot ombudsman program, in which representatives from the IRS, Department of Labor, the Federal Aviation Administration, JobCorps and other agencies would be on hand to answer citizens' questions about federal, state and local government.

Trouble was, the feds never bothered to promote the office, so relatively few people realized it existed. Mostly, people wandered in to ask about taxes and such labor issues as the Family Medical Leave Act, according to the former Store Manager Dan Lawless, who is now back at his desk at the General Services Administration.

The program didn't catch on in any other major cities and was doomed when the second Bush administration took power, not least of which because the General Store was part of an initiative launched by former Vice President Al Gore. One by one, federal agencies cut off funding to staff positions at the office until Lawless was left all by his lonesome. Last Monday, he got a call from his boss giving him two days to close up the Store.

It's still possible to get answers to governmental questions, but first you have to know which of the myriad of agencies to call, and then there's the matter of bureaucratic red tape.

"Where the Store added value was, you could talk to someone face-to-face," Lawless says. "I don't think there's another single source to get your questions answered."

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