Peter M. McNeil has been doing math all winter.
The 72-year-old Schenectady accountant has two foot-high stacks of paperwork on his polished wooden desk — clients’ W-2 and 1099 forms, receipts, canceled checks and other assorted papers that will be studied as tax returns are processed. There’s another dozen or so folders around the office.
Business is about to boom, as more people tell tales about personal finances as the deadline approaches to file tax returns for 2012. Tax documents must be mailed to federal and state authorities by next Monday, April 15.
McNeil, a 1958 graduate of Scotia High School and a 1962 graduate of Niagara University, has been in the accounting and tax preparation business for the past 40 years. He and his late partner, Dave Lampron, opened their business in Watervliet in 1973; Lampron passed away in 1996; McNeil has been in his small office on lower State Street — across from Kentucky Fried Chicken — for the past 15 years.
McNeil will be spending his April hours with numbers, for people and corporations who will spend between $100 and $750 on accounting fees to satisfy the tax man for another year. The accountant had some time for words, and a quick interview, during a break from additions and subtractions. He shared a habit he has practiced every year since 1973 — and disclosed another practice he would like to begin, but has never been able to.
Q: What do you like best about this job?
A: The people — good clients and friends. I’ve made some lifelong friends. You get generations of families, too — you get the grandfather, the father and the son a lot of times.
Q: How much business do you see in March and early April?
A: I’m very steady through February and March, and then in April it really goes wild. Complicated returns tend to take longer, I wait longer for them to get all the information in.
Q: What makes things complicated?
A: They’re more involved, they have rental properties or small businesses, a lot of capital gains or losses, as the case may be.
Q: What will this coming week be like?
A: It starts right now. I have a lot of returns to get done, as you can see. They’re all over the office. It will be very chaotic. People will rush to get the information to you so you can complete the returns. We’ll get it done, but it will take some extra time. I’ll be here probably most nights until 7:30, 8 o’clock.
Q: Why do you think some people wait until the last minute?
A: They’re kind of afraid of what they’re going to get for answers, they’re afraid they owe money. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
Q: What kind of questions do people ask you?
A: The first question is, “What’s new in the tax laws?” They ask questions about their personal finances too, of course, and should they get an IRA, shouldn’t they. That’s the only change you can really make on a return is IRAs. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t.
Q: Are people afraid of audits?
A: I’d say so. They’re concerned. People are basically honest, I find, and they’re always concerned there’s going to be a mistake on their returns, they’re going to find something they didn’t report. That’s rare.
Q: Does the government really come down hard on people if mistakes are found?
A: Well, you have to pay penalty interest on the tax you have to pay; that doesn’t make them too happy. The state does the same thing. They can be quite big penalties.
Q: Have people ever tried to claim strange expenses on their taxes?
A: I had a fellow who wanted to knock off some gambling expenses. He was an international salesman and he wanted to knock off some of these things that were illegal, which I wouldn’t do.
Q: How long do you spend with someone on a simple tax return?
A: I’d say I spend at least an hour with the people, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. Then I spend the time processing the return and verifying that it’s accurate.
Q: How has the business changed in the last 40 years?
A: The computer. I started with a pump handle adding machine, the old-style adding machine. We were really thrilled when we got a copier. Computers are just amazing, what they do.
Q: When do you do your taxes?
A: I file an extension, so it’s after April 15. I’ve got too much to worry about with clients. I’ve done that every year for the last 40 years.
Q: Any funny stories from years of preparing taxes?
A: I had one guy, he was a new client, an amended return. It had been previously done by someone else and they were incorrect. There were certain inaccuracies in the return and we got them done, probably in November. The next winter, he came in one day to the office and was wondering where his checks were, there were like $3,000 in checks. We started calling on them, we found they had sent them out. We were stumped. When the snow finally melted, they were under the snow, just waiting for him.
>Q: Don’t you ever get tired of all the number work?
A: You have to make a game out of it, you have to achieve a certain goal for your clients, legally of course. You have to have a dedication to your clients.
Q: After 40 years of numbers, how much longer do you want to go?
A: I find I like it, and I’ll keep going as long I’m healthy. That’s the key, obviously. As long as I can still sit behind a desk and do what I’ve got to do, I’ll be here.
Q: What will Monday, April 15 be like in your office?
A: I have a goal to play golf on the 15th of April every year. Since 1973, I haven’t made it once. That’s how it is, very busy.