Post office machine frustrates local last-minute tax filers

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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It was about 8 p.m. Monday at Vancouver’s main post office at 2700 Caples Ave., and about 25 people were lined up to get their IRS returns postmarked before midnight.

Not by a postal clerk, but by a single, 6-foot-tall, blue Automated Postal Center that takes only debit or credit cards.

Navigating the computer’s complexities was difficult enough that a few people who got close behind the user were peeking to see how it works. One young woman seemed flustered.

And the wait for one’s turn was a half hour or longer, with some people in the line wondering why a postal clerk wasn’t there to deal with the letters faster. Why, some wondered, couldn’t they just toss their returns in a box, for a clerk to date-stamp before midnight?

If the customers simply put their stamped returns through the slot, they feared the returns wouldn’t be postmarked until today.

“It’s got to be postmarked today,” Rod Sager of Vancouver, a real-estate agent, said Monday. “If it’s postmarked today, they can’t penalize me.”

Are they that strict?

“It’s the federal government,” said Larry Kruger, 68. “You think they’re going to give you a grace period?”

Here’s what an IRS website has to say: “If you owe tax and don’t file on time, the total late-filing penalty is usually five percent of the tax owed for each month, or part of a month, that your return is late, up to five months.”

People in the queue were standing patiently and chatting, some about government spending.

Once a user pushed all the right touch-spots on the screen, the machine would make some grinding noises and eventually push out a postmarked stamp and receipt.

“Thanks,” the computer would say on its screen, as if trying to smooth over the impersonal system. “It’s a pleasure to serve you.”

“This system sucks!” said Steven Jordan. “We need to get rid of this whole income-tax system.”

Jordan said there should be a simpler flat-rate tax system.

“We do not have a tax problem in this country,” said Jordan. “We have a spending problem of the highest magnitude.”

OK, sure, the folks in line were procrastinators, but they were paying their taxes. They were subjected to long waits and inconvenienced by having to deal with a complicated machine and no postal clerk to help.

Efforts to get an explanation from postal officials in Vancouver were unsuccessful Monday.