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Tax Time Ticks Past

Procrastination, dread keep people from early filing.

Once again, the taxman cometh and taketh away.

April 15 has come and gone, the last day to file income tax returns for 2004 without filing for an extension or paying any late fees. Although Tax Day is always the same day, many people wait until literally the eleventh hour to mail their forms back, making area post offices the place to be Friday afternoon and into the evening.

“It is estimated that five million tax forms will be mailed from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area today alone,” said Bruce Nicholson, manager of the Spring Hill Road post office in McLean, which was open until midnight Friday to accommodate last-minute filers.

“Our morning started off busy, but it hasn’t been too bad,” he said. Throughout the day, Nicholson said there had been as many as eight employees working the counter and helping customers in the lobby of the post office, to make things run a little more efficiently.

“The clerks are really hustling out there. If you don’t assist people and help them get their papers in order, it slows things down,” he said.

The longest line in that particular office went the length of the lobby and occurred mid-morning on Friday. “Tonight seems to be pretty light,” Nicholson said. About 20 people were in line at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. “We’re usually flooded around 11:45 p.m. People know they’re racing the clock more than the office closing, but once midnight hits I can’t postmark anything for anyone,” he said.

CUSTOMERS WHO COME in during that last-minute rush can look a little panicked, he said. “Some people will fill out their tax forms while they’re in line. They’ll come in to make the copies they need and write everything out while waiting,” he said. “It’s the same people every year, and they always say they’ll never wait until the last minute again, but they do.”

Surprisingly, most late-night customers are in good spirits when they come in for that all-important postmark.

“It’s incredible that some people will come in to get passports processed or send out mass mailings on tax day. Those are the ones who get to complaining,” he said. “They know it’s tax day, and they come in anyway, They complain that they can’t cut in line.”

One way the McLean post office attempts to cut back on customer’s waiting time is an automated postage machine, that provides users with the option to weigh and receive postage for a package and also gives the customer the chance to purchase insurance or registered mail services from the workstation, Nicholson said.

Many people chose to file electronically, courtesy of the Internet, but it hasn’t had too much of an impact on postal revenues, he said.

“There are so many options nowadays to file that [e-filing] doesn’t seem to effect our revenue,” he said. “I think there will always be a lot of people who feel more secure filing in paper. The security and trust the post office offers helps people feel better, with all the problems of identity theft out there, people know they can trust our organization.”

JOHN BARTELLONI’S taxes were prepared and ready to go, but he was filing an extension Friday to give himself some extra time to double-check his return.

“My brother is my tax preparer,” he said. “I’m due a refund, but I want to make sure everything is done right.”

His theory on why people wait until the evening of April 15 to file taxes is based on urgency.

“Taking care of your taxes doesn’t have the same urgency on January 31 as it does on April 15,” he said. “Plus, doing your taxes requires a lot of energy. I think I heard the average tax preparer takes 27 hours to prepare an return.”

Nancy Smith said the automated machine helped make her experience easier.

“I’m always a last-day filer because it’s not pleasant,” she said. “If you don’t know if you’ll get a refund there’s no incentive to file.”

She has tried e-filing her taxes in the past, but prefers the security of mailing in her tax forms.

“There are so many viruses out there, when I sent my taxes electronically I had the feeling the something wasn’t quite right,” she said. “It worked out OK, but I feel better sending my finances in on paper.”

A resident of Washington, D.C., Smith said she’s thinking of moving to Virginia to avoid paying “thousands of dollars” in Washington taxes.

Catherine Hawkins’ tax returns were filled out last month for her daughter’s college financial aid applications, but she waited until Friday afternoon to mail the information in to the Internal Revenue Service.

“I just haven’t had the time to drop them off, and I don’t want to leave it for my mailing man,” she said.

As the mail carrier responsible for the Tysons and McLean portion of Fairfax County, John Kemp said his shipments are usually between 10 and 15 percent heavier during the last week before taxes are due.

MATT SEE AND Abby Gregg were visiting their parents in Great Falls and stopped at the Great Falls post office to ship out their taxes Friday.

“I used to file a month in advance, but now I drop it off last minute,” See said. “Waiting in line is all just part of the process. I don’t mind it.”

Abby Greg, on the other hand, filed early. “I feel better getting it done sooner because there’s less stress,” she said.

See said he prefers to send his taxes in via “snail mail” with the extra certified mail fee because “if anything happens, I have a receipt to prove I sent it.”

The long lines at the Great Falls post office on Georgetown Pike were during the noon rush hour, said manager Karan Punia.

“We have a 60-feet-long lobby, and the line was all the way to the door,” Punia said. “We’re a small town, but people will use their cell phones to call their friends and tell them we’re empty.”

Mail volume on April 15 is traditionally heavy but not quite as bad as the week before Christmas, he said. “This takes time to make sure people have the special services they need and none of the ones they don’t.”

Sometimes people will be in such a rush to have their envelope stamped they forget entirely, he said. “We’ll pay for the postage and call or write to the customer the next day to let them know they owe us money,” he said.

Visiting her brother in Great Falls from Ohio, Sara Lamp said she is traditionally a late filer because “I’m a procrastinator. It’s part of my personality.”

She said she was not sure why people waited until the last minute to file their taxes, but she thinks it might have something to do with dreading that final tax bill.

“I don’t really know why,” she said. “Taxes are one of those things you hate, like going to the dentist, but it’s something you have to do.”

Lamp said she used to work in an accounting firm and was surprised by how many people would become emotional while having their taxes prepared.

“Generally speaking, people have a good idea of how much they have to pay or how much they’re getting back,” she said. “It is stressful, and people will start to cry, especially women who have a male accountant working with them.”