"Where were you the first of the year?" is the whimsical reply Henri Long sometimes has for those who wait until the last minute to have their income taxes done.
On Monday, the day before the deadline for filing returns, there were more than a few people in that category at the H & R Block tax office Long manages in the Sears store in South Coast Plaza.
Despite a steady stream of customers picking up completed returns and constant telephone calls from people seeking appointments, Long managed to keep her wits about her and her sense of humor. Probably because she knew the worst was yet to come.
"If you think this is something, you ought to be here tomorrow," Long said, pausing only a moment as she deftly sorted through stacks of documents.
In the tax service business, it's as predictable as sunrise and sunset that the first two weeks in April will not be a fun time. As an example, Long pointed out that last year her office prepared 2,976 returns--1,000 of them from April 1 onward.
"People say they know they should get in and get it done," Long said. "But they put it off, and then they wake up and it's April 15."
As Bob Wahlberg worked on their return at one of the 10 desks in Long's office, Michael Asten and Andrea Sybert of Costa Mesa explained how they came to be there.
"We had other days to do this set up, but when other things came up, it's really easy to put this off," Asten said.
"Yeah, and then all of a sudden here it is April 15," Sybert said as she rocked the stroller which held their 6-month-old daughter, Morgan. She was quietly sleeping through her parents' ordeal.
Many people who put off doing their taxes face payments beyond the amounts withheld from their wages, according to H & R Block district manager Lea La Mar.
But that's not always the case because, she pointed out, "last year IRS had some problems and they were late getting some of the refunds out. Now, some of the people have money coming back figure they'll have to wait for their refunds anyway, so they just wait."
In contrast to the busy scene at H & R Block, things were almost quiet at the Internal Revenue Service facility in downtown Santa Ana.
In one part of the office, a steady stream of people moved quietly about Sue Phillips' desk, selecting their tax forms from racks on the wall and pausing only to ask Phillips for ones they couldn't find.
"We're going to have to make photocopies of some these because people take more than they need," Phillips said, thumbing a stack of forms.
In another part of the office, isolated by glass walls, sat the service's newly installed automated reception area. A lone clerk sat in a library-quiet room directing the infrequent visitor to one of five color-coded telephones that are directly connected with various IRS sectors, such as assistance in preparing returns and collections.
"That's surprising," said IRS spokeswoman Sarah Wreford of Monday's slow pace at the Santa Ana office.
"At our walk-in offices in Carson, San Diego and Riverside, where we still have actual people that the taxpayers talked to, it was quite busy today and will be tomorrow too," Wreford said.
As of 9:30 a.m. Monday, Wreford said, 6.25 million returns had been handled at the IRS service center in Fresno. By tonight's midnight filing deadline, another 3.25 million are expected to come flooding in.
And for taxpayers expecting refunds, Wreford said, it will take 10 to 12 weeks before those welcome checks show up in their mailboxes.