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Tax pros get harder to find

State shortage even

begins to spread south

Haven't done your taxes? If you need professional help, better hurry.

A statewide shortage of licensed tax preparers and consultants has jammed service firms, forcing some to stop taking new clients early this year. Industry leaders say low unemployment and tough state regulations are to blame.

It is packed, said Robert Kottke, whose three Oregon Tax Services locations in the Salem area are turning new clients away. Almost everybody's going to be that way.

certainly have seen the labor shortage.

Absolutely, there is a big shortage of qualified tax preparers in Southern Oregon, said Michael Piels, a certified public accountant. It's not only tax preparers. We seem to be constantly on the lookout for qualified accounting personnel.

Piels said private industry has boosted the salaries of many in-house accountants, analysts and other financial professionals, luring some candidates from entering the public accounting field.

If I was graduating from college today, there's no doubt in my mind that I'd go into industry, he said.

Craig says the growing number of firms has raised the level of competition for preparers. But Craig says the labor issues here aren't nearly as bad as they are in the northern part of the state, based on her conversations with other district managers.

The staff at H&R Block's six Rogue Valley locations swells to as many as 35 employees at the company's peak time, which is in February. It has about 28 working during this final week and only four year-round. Craig says many of the seasonal tax preparers are retirees or people such as stay-at-home mothers who don't work the rest of the year.

Martha Blandino, owner of Income Tax Help Inc. of Medford, said her company hasn't had to turn any customers away but she did note that fewer people applied for seasonal tax preparer positions this year.

With such a hot state economy, fewer people may be looking for temporary or second jobs during tax season.

And becoming a tax professional isn't easy in the first place.

Oregon has the most stringent testing and licensing requirements for tax professionals in the country, failing 35 percent of entry-level tax preparer applicants and about 67 percent of those seeking more advanced tax consultant licenses.

Tough tests aren't necessarily bad: Oregon has the lowest error rate in the nation on federal tax returns.

Still, the state plans to revamp the tests this year, said Pamela Konstantopoulos, administrator of the Oregon Board of Tax Service Examiners.

We want to encourage people to get involved in the profession. It may be that adjusting exams is what we need to do, Konstantopoulos said.

Konstantopoulos said the tax board is proposing the following changes to address the problem:

The board doesn't want to dumb down the tests. But it will try to make them easier to take.

The board will eliminate questions that have answers that are debated by tax professionals.

It will bring in an expert on test-writing to make sure the questions are clear.

It will include some entry-level professionals on its review panel to make sure the questions aren't too obscure.

In addition, the board will move to make tests available on demand at community colleges.

Stewart Parmele of Michael Piels's Certified Public Accountants in Medford, looks through completed tax files. - Photo by Bob Pennell