Everything you need to know about Marianne Stark, who has owned a tax preparation, accounting and bookkeeping service in La Verne, Calif., since 1983, can be pretty much summed up in her surname — Stark, as in direct and unambiguous.
In other words, she’s a straight shooter, which is refreshing to know if you’re a business or individual who wants clear, informed and unadulterated advice on your taxes – a dominant concern year-round, but especially in January.
Packed inside her petite frame is a dynamic and energetic numbers-crunching, tax-filing expert who is always advocating for her clients – and she has lots of them. Police and fire are her bread and butter, owing in no small part to her husband Bill, a retired firefighter and hazmat expert. Not only do emergency personnel and first responders across the state of California entrust their taxes to her but public safety departments across the country do as well. Near the entrance to her office, she proudly displays the patches of her public safety clients from California to New York, along with her La Verne Chamber 2016 “Business of the Year” award.
The flight attendants, construction workers, beauty salon owners, real estate agents, clergy, day care operators, entertainers, lawyers and engineers she also assists may soon demand their own board as well.
Remarkably, she keeps and maintains customized worksheets for each profession, so her clients will never forget or overlook an area for possible tax deductions.
There are several factors that have contributed to Stark’s success, but foremost among them is having pursued and trained for a profession that she absolutely adores.
“A CPA came to talk to my high school class, that’s when I got into it,” Stark recalled.
She started in reinsurance, took a job opening with a CPA in Pasadena, then did audit work before becoming the manager of an audit and small business accounting department.
“Believe it or not, I still use the same two-way, red-and-black pencil – red for credits and black for debits – that I used when I started out,” she said, twirling it between her fingers like a baton.
While Stark may demonstrate a lot of throwback, old-fashioned tendencies – she works in La Verne’s old-town after all – she’s grateful for the modern conveniences and efficiencies provided by computers.
“We did all of the tax returns by hand, every page, before we sent them off to the secretarial pool to be typed on those old typewriters,” she recalled.
As for whether her job is easier or harder now, that’s something of a split-decision for Stark.
“Today’s rules and regulations make the work more complicated,” Stark said. “But all together, the product we can deliver is a lot cleaner. We can get answers more quickly and we can calculate better. If needed, you can give us your password, and we can go into your QuickBooks, and find out what’s not matching up.”
To be fair, tax accounting can be commoditized like so many other businesses and services, but the Stark difference, which is what endears her to so many clients, is that she is a lot of fun (something you normally don’t associate with paying taxes), and you can tell that she deeply cares about the advice she gives you. She wants you to save money by taking advantage of all the tax savings to which you are entitled.
Here’s a sample:
• Mileage: Whether you buy or lease, a mileage log is mandatory. No deductions will be allowed with a mileage log.
• Child away at college: If they’re away at college and claim themselves as a dependent on their tax return, you can’t. Talk to your kids.
• Purchase loans and refi’s: Bring in your settlement statements. They contain a lot of information – mortgage interest, loan origination fees, points, property taxes and other details – that may be deductible.
• Newborns: Many parents will forget to include a child born in January. When a baby is born in January, they often forget to tell me because an entire year has passed.
• Gifting: You can give away $14,000 to as many individuals as you’d like, but the gifts are not tax deductible.
• Aging parents: Parents can go back on tax returns if you provide more than half of their financial support during the tax year, and unlike your children, they don’t have to live with you.
Because Stark takes an active interest in her clients, be prepared to answer a bushel of questions when you sit across from her desk. If you have several different investments and are paying a lot in taxes, she’ll want to know why. If you’re paying monthly rent of, say, $2,500 a month, she’ll want to know why you’re not making house payments instead, which provide a tax write-off. If you don’t understand the savings you can realize by owning instead of renting, she’ll step you through the process.
Another of her professional passions is the neophyte business owner. Over the years, she has seen too many budding entrepreneurs take their first stab at business unprepared.
“My attitude is every business can thrive with the right advice and the right help,” Stark said. “If you are doing your business, and you try to be the chief of everything, and you don’t go outside to get help for the weaknesses of your business, you will fail.”
She added a couple more caveats for the new business owner.
“Hire the right kind of people, and find a good lawyer to talk to and a good accountant to talk to, and make sure they are talking to each other.”
Another key consideration new business owners need to make, according to Stark, is whether to incorporate or become a limited liability company. Stark says that too often new business owners mistakenly choose the latter.
“In a California LLC, you pay a fee on the gross income while with S and C corporations, you pay only on the net,” she explained.
So what’s the bottom line for the new business owner who wants to get his or her business off to a good start and avoid major problems or penalties later on?
“You need to go in and say to your accountant, ‘This is the kind of business I’m going to have, so does it make more sense for me to be an LLC or a corporation?’ I know that if you are in manufacturing, for example, you likely will want to be a corporation.”
With Stark, you’ll never get any shortage of advice.
“Perhaps, I open my mouth more than I should,”she said.
But her clients and the overall downtown La Verne community are glad that she does. There, her voice is heard as a member of the downtown merchants association and as a member of the La Verne Rotary Club.
She’s known for asking the right questions with surgical-like precision. “It’s like with your doctor, if you don’t ask the right question, you’re not going to get a good answer,” she said.
And there doesn’t appear to be any let-up as to the breadth and depth of her involvement whether she’s advocating for her clients or the community.
“Working is good, I can’t retire,” she said. “I’m having fun.”