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Gimme a tax break: A day in the life of a hardworking, local tax preparer

Carrie Robbins checks to see if a customer is owed - or owes. Her busy time came two months ago, when customers filed early for refunds. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

As the income tax deadline nears, tax preparer Carrie Robbins is calmly winding down the season.

For her, crunch time came as soon as W-2s arrived in the mail in late January. The 60-hour weeks began then and lasted through February.

"When people know they have a refund coming, it gets really busy," she said. "The people that owe generally wait until the last minute, so it will pick up again."

In her five years at H&R Block in Park Rapids, Carrie doesn't recall a year like this one. The highs and lows seem to alternate, sometimes by the day, sometimes by the hour.

She's heard many hard luck stories - "very much so" - this season. "The people from Team Industries that have been laid off" are hard luck cases, she said.

But it's tougher in a small town "because I personally know these people," she said.

And "income is down drastically," she added.

That can sometimes help the taxpayer get a larger refund if income is down and they have children, but it's not the desirable way to get money back from the government.

"Last year you had a refund so let's see if we can get you one this year, too," she cheerfully tells a customer.

It's all about the refund.

She methodically runs through her list of questions without any hint that she's asked customers these very items hundreds of times before. Each case is new and a challenge. She asks each question hopefully, helpfully.

And the list of questions often prompts the memory of a forgetful taxpayer, and that eureka moment when they realize there's something they can deduct they never thought of.

"I like seeing the happy faces when they get more back than they thought they had coming," she grins.

But then there are the taxpayers who have less coming than they anticipated - or believe they are due. They can be a handful, Carrie admits.

'There are people that get really mad when they owe," she said. "They think it's our fault and it's not."

She seems unfazed when a customer comes in missing records, or with their records in a shamble. She's seen it before. If they're not taking their own notes, she gives them a list of what they need to bring back to maximize their deductions; she makes a follow-up appointment.

There is good tax news, however. "First time homebuyer credits went up and that's been wonderful," Carrie said. "Earned income credits will change and child tax credits should change so those will be good changes," especially for low to middle income families.

Starting April 1, as part of the economic stimulus package, a new tax credit, called "Making Work Pay," will give single tax filers a $400 credit; married filers will get twice that. But unlike last year's stimulus checks, this will be in the form of a weekly deduction. About $11 less will be deducted from the average paycheck each week. Taxpayers won't see the lump sum checks they got in 2008.

Carrie hits a button on her computer to get a preliminary estimate of where a customer's tally will be - on the plus or minus side.

"I'm just checking to see if you owe," she explains. "You don't and it will even get better with the deductions!"

She seems happier about this than the customer.

Carrie went to tax classes for three months, then passed an exam to be a professional preparer. She takes anywhere from 24-36 required hours of training annually, but likes to enroll in more than that just to stay in the game.

Tax laws change every year and get more complex with each change, she explains. It can be an intellectually challenging work environment.

In her small office, she sometimes has a receptionist to keep her appointments straight, and a part-time preparer comes in when the returns hit the fan.

She'll complete more than 400 returns this season.

"I love my job," she says. "I love meeting a variety of people."

Friends and family understand that during the tax season, they won't see much of her.

She returns to her computer in search of that elusive deduction she hopes will maximize the next customer's return.