Melinda Tolbert has been preparing income tax returns for local residents more than a decade, having started her business on Cusseta Road in south Columbus.
Roughly eight out of 10 clients who use her services are lower-income residents. So Tolbert, 35, a Columbus native and Carver High graduate, knows how important each and every tax season is for them.
“They need that money,” she said. “After Christmas, a lot of people are banking on their tax refunds to recover.”
It was three years ago that Tolbert and her husband, Jack, relocated MJ’s Tax Firm to 1300 5th Ave., in what formerly was Gateway Lincoln-Mercury, a new and used vehicle dealership near downtown Columbus. The facility also includes a business center, which rents cubicle space to those working to start and grow a venture.
Tolbert is chief executive officer of the operation, while her husband does tax preparation along with other members of her relatively small staff. Personal service to individuals and small businesses are their goal, along with giving back to the community. They did that in December, donating 50 bicycles to youngsters in the city and giving away $500 to a lucky person.
“Just as important as it is to pay our church tithes, it’s important to give back to the community,” she said.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Tolbert recently at her office, where she discussed the reason she got into tax preparation, what it’s like this time of the year, and some basic advice for finding a good company to handle your state and federal tax returns properly and safely. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. First off, why did you get into the tax business?
A. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia 11 years ago, and I was working for BlueCross BlueShield at the time. I became very ill and I had to take a leave of absence because my doctors had no idea what was wrong with me. I was real sick and they ran many tests. I was back and forth from Atlanta trying to figure out what the issue was and, after a few months, my leave of absence ran out and I lost my job. When they finally did find out what the issue was, I looked at corporate America differently, because I was a great employee. I was always on time. I was never absent. I was always a top caller, because I was a customer service agent. I just didn’t feel like I was treated fairly. So it encouraged me to open my own business.
Q. Had you prepared tax returns before that?
A. My father-in-law actually has his own tax firm, so I kind of followed his footsteps. I just tried it out the first year to see how I liked it and I fell in love with it.
Q. What do you enjoy the most about it?
A. I enjoy being able to explain the different credits and deductions available to my clients, because a lot of my clients are low-income clients and are not very knowledgeable about what’s available for them. So it touches me to be able to give them that information. It’s also fun mingling with everybody, and making lifelong friends.
Q. You’re a bit like the eye doctor. They see you once a year?
A. It is fun, catching up with everybody and seeing how exciting their year was. Some people had babies. Some people got married and bought homes. So it’s fun.
Q. Is it hard staying up on all of the regulations and tax laws?
A. It’s not easy. Of course, the tax codes and laws change yearly. Some expire. Sometimes they implement new tax laws. So you definitely have to stay up to date. I take a lot of continuing education (courses) throughout the year to make sure I’m up to date on everything. I do that online, but I also go to different conferences throughout the year.
Q. How many employees do you have?
A. There’s four of us. I keep it very small and intimate. There’s a lot of identity theft and fraud going on with taxes, so I like to keep my staff small, and that can eliminate a lot of it, because you have to be careful of who you hire.
Q. Are there some tax changes on the horizon, particularly with a new president and administration coming in?
A. At this point, we don’t know what changes are being made. I’ve heard a lot about the different filing statuses that will be removed. But at this point we’re not sure. We’re kind of just playing it by ear.
Q. They’re talking about most people not filing deductions and mortgage interest being eliminated possibly as a deduction?
A. Right. I’ve heard that head of household filing status will be eliminated and things like that. The things I’ve heard will impact single parents more than others.
Q. Is that part of your job, helping clients sort out the information and potential misinformation?
A. All the time. We get a lot of calls. I’m very hands-on with our Facebook page. I get a lot of inboxes and questions on Facebook about the new laws and how it’s going to affect them.
Q. Facebook and social media is really big?
A. Number one. That’s the number one marketing tool, Facebook. That’s how we stay in touch throughout the year. You’ve got to change as the times change, and right now social media is the number one marketing tool.
Q. How does the tax season typically unfold? Does it get frenetic or is it pretty organized?
A. Our office is very organized, but we don’t have control over what unfolds. For example, once we process the refunds here, we submit it to the IRS. So it’s pretty much out of our hands once we submit it to them. We can’t control has fast they process the return and we can’t control when they release the clients’ refunds. Sometimes the client is audited, and we have no control over that.
Q. The pressure increases as the April 15 deadline approaches?
A. Yes. I have a mixture of clients. Eighty percent are low income and the rest are small business owners who are not looking forward to tax season. So I get them a day or two before (the deadline). At the very last minute. (laughs) My clients who are low income, the majority of those get refunds.
Q. They’re hungry for that money?
A. Yes. they’re banking on it and they need that money. I’m sure you’ve heard that this year there’s a delay and the IRS is not going to start accepting returns from people who have the earned income credit and additional child tax credits until Feb. 15. That’s just when they’re going to start processing them. I spoke with somebody at the IRS a few days ago and they said they’re probably not going to actually release the funds until the week of the 27th. That’s almost March.
Q. Are you getting calls or Facebook concerns?
A. Lots of calls. And I do posts on Facebook. When I posted the delay information, it had like over 200 shares and 30,000 views and over 600 clicks. It’s a major deal. When you post information about that on the updates on when they’re going to start releasing refunds, that’s a big deal. That’s what they’re looking for.
Q. Because people need the money to pay bills and some just to get by?
A. Uh-huh. After Christmas, a lot of people are banking on their tax refunds to recover. So by them not being able to get it until March, that’s rough on a lot of people. The good thing is we offer a cash advance. There are no fees attached to it and there’s no interest or anything. It’s just an advance and it will be deducted out of their refund when it comes in. We started it last year. It was $750 and this year it’s $1,000. It’s actually the bank that we work with, they’re offering it to us to offer to our clients.
Q. That advance is something other tax preparers do for customers?
A. The majority of us use the same bank, so most of us are doing it.
Q. Where do your customers come from?
A. They come from all over. We came from south Columbus; that’s where are office was. So of course the majority of our clients are from this area, the south Columbus area. But I have clients from all over Columbus. I have clients that come from Hamilton, Talbotton, Auburn. I have a few in New York and California as well. Some of them were military and they stick with us. We’re like (potato) chips; once you come you can’t let us go. (laughs)
Q. You’re the company CEO, but you still do tax preparation, right?
A. I’m the visionary of the company, so I pretty much create a lot of out-of-the-box marketing materials. Other than that, I do what everybody else here does, because my clients won’t let me not do taxes. (laughs)
Q. They want you?
A. They want me. So I do small business returns and individuals and amendments and audits.
Q. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
A. I would say the most challenging part is having to explain to a client once the return is sent off that it’s out of our hands. A lot of people don’t understand that. They think we have this magic button that we push for the IRS to release their refunds. Some of them understand it and some of them don’t.
Q. Is there a good piece of advice or two that you have for folks?
A. I would say wherever they go, whatever preparer they choose, I would encourage them to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And if a tax preparer doesn’t know the answers, they might consider getting someone else to file their taxes. We get a lot of phone calls from people asking for (refund) estimates and how it works, and you don’t have to give your Social Security number just to get an estimate. All offices do free estimates, but some offices ask for Social Security numbers. You don’t have to give that information.
Q. Any other advice?
A. I would say stay away from unethical companies that promise you a larger refund than you’re actually owed. We have to deal with that each year, with the fly-by-night companies coming in. They’ll just pop up. There’s a tax office on every corner and most of them are fly-by-nights that promise those large refunds. I also would advise everybody to do their research on the companies they choose to go to. All reputable companies have websites, so I would recommend checking out their websites and social media sites. Just do research before you give out your personal information.
Hometown: South Columbus
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 2000 graduate of Carver High School; earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Troy State University in 2010; is an active member of the National Association of Tax Professionals and the National Society of Tax Professionals
Previous jobs: Worked with Valley Healthcare in Columbus and as a customer service agent with BlueCross BlueShield of Georgia
Family: Husband, Jack Tolbert Jr., sons, Jack Tolbert III, 17, and Ja’keith Tolbert, 9, and daughter Ma’rya, 3
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with her family; reads the book, “Rich Dad Poor Dad” over and over; and likes to shop and travel
Of note: She’s also a commercial leasing and sales agent with KW Commercial; she’s married to her high school sweetheart and they will celebrate 20 years together on Feb. 15 (Valentine’s Day); she also has a passion for working with at-risk teen-age girls, and in memory of her first cousin, who was killed by her son’s father, she does speaking engagements on domestic violence