Income tax filers down to the final hours

Tax preparer Ron Plaine says filers generally fit into one of two categories: “People tend to be eit

Tax preparer Ron Plaine says filers generally fit into one of two categories: “People tend to be either earlier filers or late filers.”

Plaine, an enrolled agent and owner of RLP Financial Management on Jay Street in Schenectady, said, “I can look at my books from year to year and generally within a week, people will come in at the same time every year.”

And for those waiting until the last minute, the deadline for submitting a return is looming large today. Filers have until midnight to have their returns postmarked, sent via an online service or file for an extension.

Failing to file a return can mean stinging late penalties and fees, said Diane Besunder, a spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service’s division in New York. Still, about one in four filers wait until April and beyond to submit their return.

“Traditionally, about 25 percent of taxpayers file in the last two weeks,” she said Wednesday.

This year’s tax season has been no exception. As of April 2, the IRS had processed about 89.9 million returns, a decrease of about 2.5 percent from the same time last year.

The IRS is also anticipating 10 million people nationwide to file for extensions. This figure includes about 620,000 New Yorkers.

“It’s just habit,” said Deana Polcare, a senior tax adviser with H&R Block, who sometimes finds herself filing customer returns with less than an hour left before the deadline. “It’s what you’re used to doing.”

Filing taxes has been a little trickier this year, too, with some of the provisions included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Polcare said many of the people she’s worked with are either unaware of or unclear on the tax breaks that are available to them through the stimulus bill.

For instance, there is a $400-per-person tax credit to individual filers for simply being employed and filling out Schedule M on their return. Similarly, married couples filing joint returns can subtract $800 from their total tax bill via the “Making Work Pay” credit.

More parents and college students also qualify for the “American Opportunity” credit for education expenses. The new credit provides a maximum of $2,500 for qualified filers with a gross income of $80,000 or less, or $160,000 or less for married couples filing a joint return.

“There are a lot of new credits,” said Tina Alteri, a tax adviser with Canty Financial Management in Ballston Spa. “They just don’t know about them.”

New credits or not, many people are seeing an increase in their refund, according to the IRS. On average, Besunder said taxpayers are seeing an average refund of $2,960, which is an increase of 9.4 percent over last year’s average.

But this apparent boost in refunds hasn’t changed the rush to file. Many area accountants and tax advisers said they plan to be open well into the evening today, as last-minute filers scramble for help.

The crunch of filers isn’t something overlooked by the U.S. Postal Service, even though about two in three taxpayers now submit their return via the Internet. In the Capital Region, the post office on Old Karner Road in Albany will offer window services until midnight.

Automated services will be operational around the clock at post offices in Schenectady, Latham, Clifton Park and the Stuyvesant Plaza branch in Albany. These locations offer filers a touch-screen system to weigh their return, purchase stamps and mail it to the IRS, provided they can make the respective collection times at each branch.

Meanwhile, the nearing deadline has prompted some chain businesses to offer deals in the hope of luring last-minute filers. Starbucks, a company that normally offers discounts on tax day, is offering to refill reusable travel mugs free of charge as a promotional effort to reduce paper waste; PF Changs, with a location in Colonie Center, is offering 15 percent off food items; and Boston Market, with locations in Saratoga, Albany and Latham, is offering a buy one, get one free meal to customers today through Sunday.

As for the accountants and tax advisers handling the last-minute returns, the stroke of midnight can’t come soon enough. Like many others in the tax preparing business, Plaine will lock his doors on Friday and enjoy some well-earned time off.

“I will not be here on Friday,” he said. “It’s going to be a long weekend for me.”

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