Off welfare, new workers seek tax help

Income: Accountants are opening offices in Baltimore's inner city to accommodate clients filling out their first 1040 forms.

April 15, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Andrew Hudyma works from a run-down former grocery store on Pennington Avenue in rough-and-tumble Curtis Bay. Prostitutes walk by his neon red "FAST TAX REFUND" sign. Drug dealers haunt his intersection.

And he'd like to move to an even rougher neighborhood.

Hudyma, the accountant for hundreds of people in this south city section, has his eye on a new office on 10th Street in nearby Brooklyn, about a block from that neighborhood's public housing project. His goal: to be closer to his customers.

Hudyma, 34, sits in the financial front row of a race among accountants -- large and small -- to expand into some of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods.

Welfare reform, helped along by a strong national economy, has created thousands of new jobholders unfamiliar with the basics of 1040 and W-2 forms. In the inner city, this is the busiest tax season in memory.

"I have never seen so many first-time filers before. Never," says Hudyma, a former box company worker who once ran his tax business out of a laundromat. "The whole world has changed for people who are forced off the welfare rolls, and now they discover they have to do their taxes. And so there are lots of people looking for someone like me."

Neither the government nor the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, a leading trade group, keeps statistics on the phenomenon. But the change is clearly visible from a drive through the city.

Toward the north side of town, at least two tax preparers have opened this year along a Greenmount Avenue corridor better known as the site of one of the most intensive police raids in recent memory. On the south side, a Jackson Hewitt franchise is a centerpiece of the redeveloped Cherry Hill Shopping Center, which reopened in December.

In recent years, pharmacy and supermarket chains, having saturated the suburbs, began exploring inner-city markets around the country.

Now, some of the accountants share blocks or shopping centers with Rite Aid drugstores and Giant supermarkets.

Pushing toward expansion

"There's a lot of pressure to expand," says Eugene A. McGill, who runs the Cherry Hill office, next to a newly remodeled Super Pride market. By last year, he said, growth in the Jackson Hewitt franchise he owns in northern Anne Arundel County had stalled, and he felt he had to open in Cherry Hill. "If you're going to make money in the tax business, we need more and more volume."

Longtime accounting shops have benefited from the computational boom. Many have added staff to meet demand. An accounting office in East Baltimore has grown from five employees to 45 in four years.

Tax preparers such as Barbara Williams, a Jackson Hewitt franchisee in Cedonia, have become community fixtures, helping with food drives. The good will runs deep. In Curtis Bay, Hudyma's office is one of the few businesses on Pennington Avenue that does not have bars on its windows.

"I thank God I'm paying taxes," says Stephanie Davis, 35, a Cherry Hill resident who filed for the first time in January. "I felt a certain amount of self-esteem when I signed the return."

Davis is part of an unprecedented decline in the state's welfare rolls. In January 1995, 227,887 Marylanders were on welfare. By February of this year, in figures released this week by the state Department of Human Resources, the number was 95,019. In Baltimore, the decline was nearly as dramatic -- from 105,852 in 1995 to 55,796.

Preparers say working with first-timers is not easy. Many have tangled financial histories tainted by off-the-books jobs. And viewed closely, the welfare reform story can be less than inspiring. Even with jobs that make them eligible for a few thousand dollars from the federal earned-income tax credit, few first-timers take in more than about $12,000 a year.

But some of the new customers, like Davis, could prove to be good investments for their accountants. She has been on welfare for much of her adult life raising twin boys, one of whom, Jerard Deal, has sickle-cell anemia. But as the boys approached age 18 and Jerard become more self-sufficient, Davis thought of going to beauty school. She earned her beautician's license in 1997 and went into business for herself, renting space from Melinda's Final Touch salon in Cherry Hill.

Caring about local people

"With a new business and having to pay taxes for the first time, I wanted to make sure I didn't make any mistakes," says Davis, who paid $150 for her tax work. "Accountants who really care about local people are a blessing."

At his business, called Accurate Taxes, Hudyma emphasizes that personal touch. He employs John Bajkowski, a Curtis Bay resident of 50 years, to watch the door. His furniture consists of two desks, a few file cabinets, a halogen lamp and two yellow couches he rescued from his basement. Hudyma, the Curtis Bay-born son of Ukrainian immigrants, keeps a portrait of the Ukrainian poet, Taras Shebenko, over his desk.

He constantly jokes with customers. "It's just like a doctor -- I need to see you in two weeks," he tells one customer, who apparently filed for an extension. When his longtime client and friend Bob Steffen, 48, barges in and asks for a beer, Hudyma playfully barks, "You're my problem case!"

"You know, this ain't a Pikesville accountant's office," he says. "I'm in a whole different business."

Pub Date: 4/15/99

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