Tax Day: a national panic attack

At Suburban Station, Lauren Robino , a volunteer for the nonprofit Pathways PA, hands Sherita Cotten a copy of her tax return. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
At Suburban Station, Lauren Robino , a volunteer for the nonprofit Pathways PA, hands Sherita Cotten a copy of her tax return. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 17, 2013

The phone was ringing off the hook when the H&R Block office in the shopping center at 23d Street and Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia opened Monday - tax day - and the last-minute filers began streaming in, waving their paperwork and hoping the pros could make things as painless as possible.

Denise Evans, a bus driver clutching her pay stubs and Form 1040-A, said she had tried to avoid paying extra. "I thought I could do this on my own this year," she said. "I looked it up on YouTube. But you know what? It wasn't easy. I finally figured I'd better let the pros do it."

She was relieved to learn she would get a small refund.

"It's going down in a big way today," said Desiree Smith, who manages the office and has experienced these April 15 pressure cookers before. "We've seen more than 2,000 clients since we opened Jan. 7.

"If I thought they owed me money, I'd have come in sooner. But I owe them, so no need for rushing," said Ronnie Towns, a retired maintenance supervisor for the Youth Study Center, as he sat in line.

"Fear drove me into doing it so late," added taxpayer Diane Messina after reviewing her paperwork in the lobby. "I kept saying, 'I'll do it tomorrow.' Well, here's tomorrow."

Smith runs the Oregon Avenue office four months a year and spends the other eight in Block's year-round office on Market Street. She sees a range of human behavior as April 15 traffic builds toward the final after-work, just-before-deadline rush. "As long as we do this," she said, flashing a broad smile, "we're all right."

Among wealthier Americans who owe more, this year was not quite business as usual.

"For sophisticated clients who are dealing with many sources of income, everything got delayed this year because of the fiscal cliff," said Michael S. Jackson, partner in the Philadelphia office of the national accounting firm Grant Thornton L.L.P. "It's caused delays with a lot of Form 1099s."

Those forms list investment income, and the congressional budget negotiations delayed stock brokerage reports to clients who need that data to file their taxes. It's also taken extra time for accounting authorities to interpret this year's federal guidelines, he added.

"The IRS education [tax-credit] and investment forms were late this year," said Davangi Nair, who runs Block's office at the Cherry Hill Mall. The office lobby was filled with morning customers Saturday, two days before the deadline. "Small-business owners may file late if it takes them a while to collect all their expense records. And people who know they are going to owe will try to delay it."

Rookies in the late-filing maelstrom are sometimes disappointed to learn that an easy-to-obtain extension in their filing date does not excuse them from paying, if they owe, by April 15, Nair explained.

By contrast, there has been no slowdown this year in filings by taxpayers who work for minimum wage or low wages, said Lyn Kugel, senior director at PathWays PA, a nonprofit agency funded by the IRS and foundations, banks, and other donors. PathWays recruits volunteers to help people who earn less than $51,000 a year complete their tax forms free of charge.

"People who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit want to get the money as soon as it's available," Kugel said. With cutbacks in other programs, the credit serves as one of the government's major antipoverty programs, she added.

"For some families, this credit is one-third of their income," Kugel said. Her agency tries to guide taxpayers to bank their refunds and budget their bills instead of splurging.

PathWays PA sets up temporary tax sites across Philadelphia and its suburbs. The agency expects to file more than 2,000 forms for clients this year, the most in its history, said Maria Duncan-Prince, who heads the tax program.

Some of the sites are situated at employers with many low-wage workers, such as the Harrah's casino in Chester. Duncan-Prince said filings were up because wages have been flat or declining for many workers, and more qualify. Pennsylvania's unemployment rate, formerly below the national average, has risen to above-average levels.

"Usually we have a lot of people come in during January and then a lot toward [April 15], but this year it never slowed down," Duncan-Prince added.

"I know I owe, so it's no rush," said Reginald Hockaday, who works at Northwest Human Services in Lawncrest. He visited PathWays PA's site at the University City branch of the Free Library, where AmeriCorps volunteer Ellen Steele helped do his taxes.

"We're getting people from all over the city and some from the suburbs," said Steele, an Ohio native who is helping PathWays PA stretch its budget to cover cuts in state grants that used to help fund the program. "I've done taxes for so many people by now, nothing surprises me. We're really getting a rush right now, with all the procrastinators."


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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