Tough time for tax preparers

MANATEE — The down economy is hurting yet another industry: tax preparers.

A number of independent tax services and accountants, as well as national firms such as H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt, report that business is flat or down from last year.

Vern Fitzpatrick, manager of a Liberty Tax Service office on First Street West in Bradenton, said his March business is well off last year’s pace.

“It’s the economy, I suppose,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are so many people out there who aren’t making any money, so they don’t have returns.”

Other culprits? The growing popularity of tax software, fewer refund anticipation loans, an abundance of free help and high unemployment.

Christopher Barry is among the new breed of do-it-yourselfers. In past years, the 39-year-old physician assistant paid an accountant $500 or so to prepare the joint federal and state income tax returns for him and his wife, Ashley, a research scientist. But in January, he paid about $40 for TurboTax software.

“I really didn’t get a lot of added value from having someone prepare my taxes,” said Barry, who lives in Morrisville, N.C. “They prepared my taxes and really didn’t make a whole lot of recommendations in terms of ways to save money.”

Many more Barrys are out there.

Industry leader H&R Block reported last week that the number of returns prepared by its retail outlets was down 9.4 percent through Feb. 28, in part because of the shift to do-it-yourself returns. CEO Russ Smyth also told analysts that heavy snowfalls and high unemployment also hurt.

Jackson Hewitt Tax Service estimated that its returns will decline 17 percent to 19 percent this season.

Representatives at Bradenton offices of H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt referred questions about their business to corporate headquarters.

Liberty Tax Service’s Fitzpatrick said his volume has been helped by the complexity of Schedule M, a new form taxpayers must file to account for the Making Work Pay credit. People who come into the office to ask about the form often end up having Liberty do their taxes, he said.

Jim G. Germer, of Bradenton’s Jim G. Germer CPA, said his tax preparation business has been steady. But Germer, who has been preparing taxes for 25 years, said he also has shifted his concentration to financial consulting as tax preparation began to decline a few years ago.

“Our business has adapted,” he said.