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Endless tax season, personnel shortages continue for firms

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, Coast CPAs are still having an endless tax season. Tax seasons roll into other tax seasons while accountants rebuild homes and offices and do all they can to help clients file tax returns and rebuild their lives.

The Biloxi office of Piltz, Williams, LaRosa and Company was completely destroyed. It was a red brick building on Lemeuse Street that stood next to the picturesque town green. The firm and its 25 employees went from an 8,000-square-foot facility to a 2,000-square-foot office in Ocean Springs.

“We used tables and put two to four people in each office,” says Stephen Theobald, a partner and managing director. “In January of 2006, we moved to a rented building with 4,000 square feet in St. Martin, and we filled it up. Working conditions are not good.”

Making a move

Those conditions, however, are going to change when the firm moves into its new building next spring. Theobald is excited about plans for the 10,000-square-foot building designed by Biloxi architect Walter T. Bolton. He believes the new facility, near the Cedar Lake exit off Interstate 10, will help recruit needed personnel.

“We lost nine people — partners, managers, staff — for various reasons,” he says. “Some looked at the storm as an epiphany and went to do other things. We lost some CPAs and replaced them with accountants straight out of school and one that had worked one year.”

He says the unseasoned accountants are all doing a fine job and are studying to take the CPA exam. “It’s difficult to attract senior-level people with these conditions, but next year when we move into the new office, it will be different,” he adds.

The firm had a large backlog of work because of the storm and the extensions from the IRS. “We’ve worked tax season hours all this year and last year,” Theobald says. “The extensions will end on October 15. We’re all working hard right now, but after that date we should be back to normal hours.”

The CPA, who moved to the Coast in 1977, had six feet of water in his Biloxi home and lost all the contents along with three cars. He and his wife bought a new home in the Oaks subdivision, but their son repaired the family home and lives there now. A grandchild will be born there soon, helping the family’s recovery process.

Help wanted

Although Bay St. Louis CPA Chuck Benvenutti is also inundated with tax returns, his biggest problem is finding staff.

“I can find entry-level accountants but they still have to have their work reviewed,” he says. “There’s a terrible shortage of senior accountants. I look at the classifieds in the CPA magazine and there are 30 to 35 firms looking for help.”

He lost two senior-level CPAs after the storm. One came back, but the firm’s workload has increased so greatly that more professional help is needed. The availability of homes is a little better in Hancock County now, but is still a hindrance in attracting personnel.

Benvenutti has approximately 250 tax returns that haven’t gone out for 2006, and says there’s no way they will go out by October 15. “There are a lot of issues. Many clients are still devastated,” he says. “Some haven’t settled insurance claims yet. There’s some inertia, and tax returns are not on their minds.”

In a community that was 95% under water, the CPA knows he will have to deal with delinquent returns and write letters to the IRS. “I can only push so much. I just don’t have the staff to do more,” he says. “I expect Katrina to be affecting returns into 2008.”

He hasn’t taken a new client since February and until recently was working seven days a week while also trying to repair his home. “I had to stop that. It was killing me,” he says. “I love to fish, and I’ve been fishing twice since Katrina.”

Everything in his office was destroyed but he was able to move back into the facility in April of 2006. The file server is safely located in Oklahoma where Benvenutti says it will probably stay.

The staff has remained steady at the Gulfport firm of Alexander, Van Loon, Sloan, Levens & Favre but their business clients have lots of personnel issues along with problems with affordable housing for employees.

“It’s either an economic boom or a disaster for business clients. No one is the same,” the firm’s spokeswoman Germaine Weldon says. “Anything construction related and food and entertainment are doing good. Some have done very well.”

She says the firm’s accountants have been hammered. “The last time they got a break was in 2004. It’s been busy going back to Hurricane Ivan,” she adds. “Things have been abnormal with unusual deadlines. That cycle will end in October and we will get a break.”

Following Katrina, the firm was out of its facility three months, but continued to work from homes and other locations while displaced.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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