Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Tax firm’s ‘wavers’ not exempt from concern

Employees dressed as Statue of Liberty and other characters draw odd looks, smiles and some complaints

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
A ‘‘waver” dressed as a patriotic Mickey Mouse attempts to lure drivers and pedestrians to prepare their tax refunds through Liberty Tax Service, a national chain with Silver Spring locations. The mouse is one of dozens of employees who advertise the businesses dressed as Uncle Sam on stilts, Nemo the clown fish from the Disney film ‘‘Finding Nemo,” and most commonly, the Statues of Liberty used by the Seminary Road site.
The costumed employees of Liberty Tax Service have amused some, confused others and led a few Silver Spring residents to contact the preparation company about their concerns with the ‘‘wavers” who advertise for the business.

The Montgomery Hills location, which employs wavers dressed as Statues of Liberty, has gotten more attention in the community than its downtown Silver Spring counterpart, in part because of its location near a residential area.

Woodside Forest resident Judy Cosler, who drives by Liberty’s Montgomery Hills location daily, said residents were initially concerned when the wavers were holding distracting American flags to go with their costumes. Now, the Statues of Liberty no longer wave flags, instead holding signs that read ‘‘Honk If You Love Liberty,” or ‘‘Fast Refund Loans.”

‘‘I just thought it was obnoxious; others thought it was a safety hazard,” Cosler said. ‘‘They wouldn’t force me to slam on my brakes.”

Heather Zahn, the owner of the Liberty Tax Service franchise in Montgomery Hills, has heard concerns from people worried that the wavers are ill-prepared for inclement weather.

Susan Rich, a Wheaton resident who came to Zahn after she saw the wavers outside during heavy rain, said she was worried that the workers were being taken advantage of.

‘‘It’s a little ironic. ... Liberty is supposed to stand for, ‘Bring us your tired, your poor,’” said Rich, who has provided the wavers with umbrellas.

Zahn, who opened the business on Seminary Road last October, said during very bad weather, she brought employees inside. ‘‘People don’t understand that the wavers are very well-treated,” she said.

Austin Kendall, a 17-year-old Albert Einstein High School junior and part-time Statue of Liberty, said while the $8 an hour job can be embarrassing, the only complaint he’s heard was from neighbors unhappy with the noise he and his friend Adrian Lorenzana, a 16-year-old Albert Einstein High School junior, had been making while playing the drums as part of the advertising campaign.

‘‘People mostly honk and laugh,” Kendall said.

The tax agency, a national organization with local franchises, has had to respond to similar concerns in other parts of the country. Earlier this month, an owner of a Liberty Tax Service in the city of Selma, Calif., was fined and told she was violating city ordinances because of the use of wavers.

Nina Cunningham, a national Liberty Tax Service spokeswoman, said occasionally franchises have problems with regulations in some jurisdictions. ‘‘The local laws really vary,” she said.

In Montgomery County, costumed wavers do not need a permit as long as they are constantly moving and not blocking traffic, according to the county’s public information office. Any traffic concerns would be a police issue. Edward Lattner, division chief in the county attorney’s office, said the ‘‘walking signs” do not fall into the definition of signs in the county code, and are open to interpretation.

Some have questioned the effectiveness of the campaign. Roland Rust, chair of the department of marketing at the University of Maryland, said he would be concerned that this kind of advertising would keep away customers looking for a serious tax preparer.

Ralph Bartles, district manager for most of the H&R Block tax preparation businesses in Montgomery County, said H&R Block focuses primarily on radio and television advertising.

‘‘We do our marketing on more of a personal basis, instead of having somebody on the street, waving, in a Statue of Liberty outfit,” he said.

The idea for the Statue of Liberty wavers came from CEO and founder John Hewitt, formerly of tax preparation agency Jackson Hewitt. Since then, Liberty Tax has grown to about 2,900 franchises, and its owners have put their own spin on the agency’s traditional mascot.

Lorenzo Dillard, owner of the Liberty Tax Service at 8025 Georgia Ave., employs not only Statue of Liberty wavers, but an Uncle Sam on stilts and a patriotic Mickey Mouse.

‘‘People can become immune to things, so I try to switch it up,” he said.

Dillard, who moved into the space last November, said earlier this month that he hasn’t heard any complaints, and has his location to thank for that.

‘‘We’re zoned commercial,” he said. ‘‘[Zahn] is so close to that [residential] neighborhood.”