This time I was smart and instead of trekking from 41st and 8th to the hotel in 95+ degree weather I decided to drive in. It has been a while since I have taken my car to NYC – the last time I did so the toll at the Lincoln Tunnel was $4.00 (it has doubled)! The ride in was smooth and surprisingly traffic-free – it took me about a half hour to go from breakfast at McDonald’s in JC to the Hilton (but leaving at 5PM was a different story – it took me an hour to get home). I parked in the garage behind the Sheraton (52nd-53rd St – across from the Hilton) and was truly lucky to score an early-bird special – it cost only $19 for 9 hours! This is certainly much better than the $50+ I would have had to pay for valet parking at the hotel.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Nationwide Tax Forums, each year since 1990 the IRS holds 3 days of educational seminars at 6 locations (Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando, the East Coast, Las Vegas, and California) throughout the US from the end of July through the beginning of September. For the past at least 6 years the East Coast location has been the Hilton in NYC (before NYC it had been in Atlantic City). My first forum was in 2005 in NYC. In 2006 I attended the forum in Chicago, returning to NYC for 2007 and 2008. About 20,000 tax professionals attend the 6 forums.
The educational sessions provide the latest word in taxes and tax administration from the IRS leadership and experts in the fields of tax law, compliance and ethics. Attendees can earn continuing professional education credits, learn about the latest IRS e-Services products and schedule a visit to the Practitioner Case Resolution Room (where each practitioner participant may present one case to IRS decision-makers who can, according to the IRS promotional literature, 9 times out of 10 resolve them “on the spot” – so far I have not taken advantage of this service). The forums also feature a two-day Expo with representatives from the IRS, business, tax preparer membership organizations and CPE providers, and finance and tax software companies offering their products, services and expertise.
While the forum is 3 days long I was able to schedule all of the educational sessions I wanted to attend in the first day. There were topics I was moderately interested in on the other 2 days – but not worth the additional subsidiary costs. As mentioned in my comment on the NATP conference in Austin, after 39 tax seasons in the business most topics become redundant. In the past, while I had planned to attend more than one day I usually gave up after the 1st due to the oppressive heat.
As usual the express check-in took about 5 seconds. Checking in, and signing in at each session, is done very efficiently by scanning one’s name “badge”.
My first session for the day was the annual overview of tax changes presented by the IRS Tax Forms and Publications division. This is usually one of the best sessions of the forum. However its content and importance depends on the actual tax law changes that are in effect at the time of the forum. Like the current developments class at the NATP conference this session was disappointing due to the minimum amount of tax changes.
While the NYC forum has always been crowded, this year was especially so. It seemed that every single seat in each session I attended was taken. Perhaps this overcrowding is the reason that the East Coast location is changing to the Gaylord National Hotel (“the largest non-gaming hotel and convention center on the Eastern seaboard”)in National Harbor, MD on the Potomac just outside Washington DC. Since I will not be attending NATP’s 2011 annual conference in St Louis I expect I will attend the IRS Forum at National Harbor.
This year’s Keynote Address was given by Deputy Commissioner for Operations Support Mark Ernst, who “oversees the integrated IRS support functions, facilitating economy of scale efficiencies and better business practices”. The speech, which earned attendees 1 hour of CPE credit, was a total waste of time. The Keynote speech is a hit and miss proposition. The best was provided by former IRS Chief Counsel Donald Korb in 2008. Korb’s presentation was followed by a lively Q+A. There was no Q+A with Ernst.
FYI, as reported by WebCPA, Ernst was “chief operating officer of H+R Block between 1998 and 2000. He was named CEO of Block in January 2001 and became chairman the following year. In November 2007 he was ousted by hedge fund manager and former SEC Chairman Richard Breeden, now chairman of the company, who criticized Block for moving away from its core tax preparation business into areas such as subprime mortgages.”
The last person I would want involved in the high-level administration of the IRS is anyone from Henry and Richard! Especially someone who was partially responsible for the mucking fess that our economy became as a result of subprime mortgages. If the IRS wants to project a consumer-friendly image why would it hire someone whose company is well-known for screwing its taxpayer clients? And it is also a true mystery why a former corporate CEO would downsize to become a civil servant. WOGK (why only God knows).
After the Keynote Address open session we have 2+ hours for lunch and to visit the Expo of vendors. I am not interested in software or RAL vendors, so I took a leisurely walk around the outside of the hotel to look for a suitable lunch spot. I went into Lindy’s (as per the “Mindy’s cheesecake” bit from GUYS AND DOLLS) on Broadway. At first I was shocked by the prices - $20+ for a sandwich. After being totally ignored for too long (no waiter taking my order or even acknowledging my presence) I walked out and continued my search. I ended up at a much “more better”, and certainly more reasonably priced, choice – the Oldcastle Pub and Restaurant on 54th Street. My second lucky break of the day.
The first session of the afternoon was “Introduction to the Decedent’s Final Form 1040” offered by the National Society of Tax Professionals, one of the “association partners” (ABA, AICPA, NAEA, NATP, NSA, and NSTP). I was pleased to learn that the presenter was Paul LaMonaca. Despite his alleged greed, which apparently led to the fall from grace of the NSTP, he is an excellent and informed instructor and did the best he could with the subject in the limited 50-minute time frame.
Next up was “Schedule C Issues” presented by NATP. Speaker Tom O’Saben is apparently a frustrated stand-up comic. He did manage to briefly cover the session topics more than adequately. It has been my experience over the years that the most substantive sessions have been those offered by the association partners.
The final session of the day was titled “What’s New for Return Preparers” presented by David Williams of the IRS. This was a reduced version of the presentation David had made to the NATP annual conference in Austin. As I mentioned in my review of that conference, David is an excellent speaker and covered the topic thoroughly and proficiently (as one would expect from a former student of Mary O’Keefe of BED BUFFALOES IN YOUR TAX CODE fame). This presentation should have been the Keynote Address of the forum – instead of the snooze inducer given by Ernst. It is certainly a topic that was of interest to everyone in attendance.
The strengths of, and my complaints about, the forum remain the same as in past years. Its main strength, from my point of view, is that the IRS lead sessions can provide an insight on Service thinking and direction on certain tax topics and issues. While the fee has certainly grown over the years (I do believe I paid only $99.00 for my first forum) it is still very reasonable when compared to similar offerings.
As for the complaints -
* First and foremost – each session is limited to 50 minutes (a CPE hour). This is certainly not enough time to properly cover just about any tax topic. It allows for only a mere overview or introduction and nothing more. There are no “Part 1 and Part II” of a topic. We are told to hold questions till the end of the presentation, and the last 5 minutes is supposed to be devoted to questions, but the presentations almost always last more than 50 minutes and there is no time for Q+A as we must scramble to the next seminar room to get a seat.
* I would have liked to see individual sessions on the more specific “who qualifies” and “how to claim” details of the only 2 real tax law changes – the FICA exemption for previously unemployed new hires (mentioned only briefly in a “Top Employment Tax Issues” session) or the health insurance credit for small businesses.
* The seminar rooms are overcrowded. There are no tables in these rooms – just rows of chairs – which makes taking notes somewhat inconvenient. Hopefully the move to a new venue will fix this next year.
* The Seminar Handbook we receive merely replicates the slides for each of the “power-point” presentations. I would very much prefer an actual written outline of each session, like the NATP and CSEA conferences and seminars provide. The value of the handbook as a reference during the year (or season) is minimal.
* There is too much time allotted for the lunch break (2 hours 20 minutes). An additional 50-minute session could be added, or additional time provided between sessions to navigate.
* Included in the package handed out upon signing in at the first forum I attended was an IRS T-shirt. An odd item to include. At the time I said I would prefer free coffee to such a useless “gift”. While T-shirts are no longer included in the registration package there is still no free coffee.
* I have always complained about the location. If the IRS wants to use an expensive midtown hotel (with a prohibitive room rate) how about the Marriott Marquis? I look forward to the new location next year (although a check of the website shows its room rates are also prohibitive). I wish the East Coast forum would return to Atlantic City.
As I mentioned with the NATP conference, the IRS Tax Forum is an excellent educational opportunity for those starting out in the tax preparation business. In a review of a previous year’s forum I said the following, which still applies –
“Obviously the IRS Forum is not a substitute for the more substantive and comprehensive seminars and workshops offered at the annual conferences of NATP, NSTP, NAEA or CSEA. The Forum should be attended in addition to one of the membership-organization offerings and primarily as a way of getting the IRS perspective on tax topics.”
There are 2 more forums this year – August 24-26 in Las Vegas and August 31-September 2 in San Diego.
David Williams mentioned in his presentation that with the phase-in of the new CPE requirements for the close to 1 Million newly registered previously unenrolled tax professionals the IRS may decide to stop offering these annual Tax Forums - since the availability is limited to about 20,000 attendees. So there may only be one or two more of these annual events left.
I welcome the comments of other tax professionals who have attended the forum in NYC or at another location.