Internet Killed the Tax Day Party

April ain't what it used to be.

Last-minute filers get the William Tell Overture treatment from the Alferd Packer Memorial String Band in Lawrence, Kansas, on April 15, 2009.

Photographer: Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World Photo

At the post office in Lawrence, Kansas, filing your taxes used to be an excuse to party. 

A crowd would gather every April 15th shortly before the doors were shut at midnight. As procrastinators arrived with their tax forms, the Alferd Packer Memorial String Band, a local group, would start playing in the lobby, which happens to have great acoustics.

In the last five minutes before the postmaster locked the inner door, the band (playfully named after a celebrated American prospector and cannibal) switched to the William Tell overture. Late filers would join the band’s fans on either side of the lobby as stragglers ran the gantlet, clutching envelopes that needed an April 15 postmark.

“Give people a deadline and you’re going to see them a minute or two before the deadline," band member Steve Mason said. “That’s the way people are.”

When their 1040s were safely in the mail, folks wanted to celebrate. It’s like the feeling of exhilaration after an exam is over, Mason said.

With the rise of electronic filing, nobody parties on April 15th in the Lawrence post office anymore, or most anywhere else (this year Tax Day is Monday, April 18th). Instead of millions of Americans rushing to the post office, they’re at home, furiously typing into their computers, or even their phones. Almost 90 percent of individual returns sent to the Internal Revenue Service are filed electronically, a dramatic increase from 15 years ago.

The post office was a very different place back then. Tasked with moving tons of paper to IRS processing centers, postal employees worked overtime and post offices stayed open late in big and small towns alike. Late at night near large postal facilities, the police would need to direct traffic, U.S. Postal Service spokewoman Sarah Ninivaggi said. “Cars would line up to give their returns to postal employees standing beside the streets with carts,” she said.

Lawrence’s post office wasn’t the only one to attract spectators and local entertainment. “It used to be more fun,” said Joseph Thorndike, a historian at Tax Analysts, a nonprofit group specializing in tax information.

Plenty of taxpayers still procrastinate. Last year, the IRS received 21.5 million individual tax returns from April 10 to April 17. The worst procrastinators can actually skip the deadline; since 2006, the IRS has granted an automatic six-month extension to anyone who wants it, no questions asked. You still need to pay any taxes owed by the deadline, in order to dawdle on the paperwork until Oct. 15.

But there’s much less incentive to rush down to the post office when you can log on from home. Also, the increasing complexity of the tax code, and the ease of using tax software, means hardly anyone is sitting down to sweaty calculations with pencil and paper anymore. “That’s quite archaic,” Thorndike said.

As the postal service’s workload shrank, it made less and less sense for offices to stay open late.  This year, fewer than 30 of the nation’s 31,606 post offices will offer extended hours on Tax Day. And most of those offices are in major cities such as New York, Dallas, and Denver, Ninivaggi said.

The Alferd Packer Memorial String Band played every Tax Day for 25 years, starting in 1987. Then the Lawrence post office cut its hours and started closing at 5:30. The band tried playing earlier, but the festive atmosphere was gone, along with most of the people.

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