LaRusaBy Anu Varma Panchal

Many people toy with the idea of learning a foreign language, particularly when it’s beneficial for business or work. Some go as far as investing in the Rosetta Stone or maybe taking a few classes online.

But, when St. Petersburg, Russia, native Elina Linderman began seeing huge numbers of Spanish-speaking clients at her La Rusa, LLC (now located in the same plaza as the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce office in front of The Grove shopping center off Oakley Blvd., across from TJ Maxx), she enrolled at the University of South Florida and obtained a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in Spanish Studies two years ago, adding that to her 1997 Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in accounting.

“I like to study; I like to go to college,” says Linderman with her full-on Russian accent and infectious laugh. “What can I say?”

That over-the-top level of commitment may explain why La Rusa, Linderman’s full-service accounting firm, has shown almost exponential growth, thanks in part to the referrals of her clients who have been with her for years. Linderman is registered as a tax return preparer with the Internal Revenue Service, which means she is licensed to prepare income tax returns for individuals, couples, families and businesses. She has completed rigorous training and also must complete continuing education every single year in order to remain licensed and up to date on all new tax laws, state and federal. In addition to her tax preparation, bookkeeping and payroll services, Linderman’s office in The Grove also is a prime destination for health insurance seekers looking for someone to walk them through enrolling in “Obamacare,” also known as the “Affordable Care Act.”

Obamacare first kicked off in January 2014, and mandates that all U.S. citizens and legal residents must obtain health insurance for themselves and their dependents, or obtain an exemption from doing so. Anyone who doesn’t either get insurance or an exemption will most likely have to pay a penalty while filing their tax return. This penalty, according to Linderman’s web site, can range from about $325 to $975 or about 2 percent of the yearly household income above the tax filing threshold.

You have to reapply for Obamacare every year, based on your estimated income for the upcoming year. If you do not resubmit your application, you will be automatically re-enrolled by the Health Insurance Marketplace, and Linderman explains that you may end up in a less advantageous plan because the marketplace is not privy to the most current and updated information about your income.

To enroll in one of the plans offered under the Affordable Care Act, you can call or go online to the government’s Health Insurance Marketplace by yourself and find a plan in which to register, but Linderman says the marketplace can be bewildering, and it’s all too easy to make mistakes that will cost you money. At La Rusa, a team of experts with a unique blend of experience in tax accounting and health insurance will help clients enroll in Obamacare for 2016 — free of charge. Linderman and her colleagues will help you apply for a subsidy, complete all the paperwork for you and figure out the right income to report.

“When an estimate is not done correctly, people will estimate one thing but the reality will be different,” says Linderman, who explains that estimates for 2016 income are used to apply in 2015. “[For example], if they estimate an income of $30,000, but only make $25,000, they get money back. But, if they estimate $30,000 but end up making $40,000, they have to pay back [the IRS]. A lot of times people overlook income they think is irrelevant.”

Linderman also can help those who may mistakenly think they do not qualify for Obamacare. If you do not make a certain income, you have to apply for Medicaid, which Linderman says may not be the best option because clients may have to pay deductibles. She helps people go through their finances and notices deductions they may not have otherwise known about in order to qualify for Obamacare.

One-Stop Shopping

People may choose to see an accountant to file their taxes, or an insurance agent to help obtain health insurance. But, at La Rusa, they get both in one package. Linderman notes, however, that it would be inaccurate to say that she is just an accountant. To her clients, it’s almost as if she functions as a counselor, financial expert, trusted friend and even (sometimes), a business coach.

Linderman exemplifies a work ethic and drive she learned early, as an 18-year-old Russian political refugee who arrived in Pennsylvania with her parents, two younger sisters, five suitcases and $100. While working in auditing and accounting positions for various firms, Linderman says she began doing tax returns for friends and family on nights and weekends. For one friend, Linderman was able to spot a mistake in her former accountant’s work and amend three years of tax returns, garnering her friend $10,000 back from the IRS. That first year, Linderman prepared 48 tax returns. The following year, due to referrals and word of mouth from satisfied clients, that number rose to 400.

Six years ago, she decided to take a risk and quit her job.

“I was making six figures,” she says. “Everybody thought I was nuts.”

The gamble paid off. Linderman was soon preparing around 1,000 tax returns from home annually, and that was before Obamacare took effect.

“Clients were calling me in a panic,” she says. “They didn’t know how to report income on their tax returns. They were scared. I helped one client; then helped another… a lot more clients needed help. So, I got licensed.”

She obtained her Florida 2-15 Insurance License, which allows her to sell health and life insurance. That expertise in two fields — tax accounting and insurance — makes her uniquely positioned to help clients best juggle their incomes in order to buy the best possible health plans and get the most amount of money back to which they are legally entitled.

“I approach it from a whole different perspective,” she says. “First, I decide the subsidy; then I select the insurance.”

There are other differences between La Rusa and other firms — both accounting and insurance. For one thing, there is the multicultural, multi-ethnic vibe, with voicemail messages in English, Russian and Spanish. In fact, Linderman got the name of her company from her Spanish-speaking clients, who would refer to her as “La Rusa,” which means “the Russian lady” in Spanish.

“My customers invented the brand,” she laughs.

She notes that she didn’t just learn Spanish to communicate better; she chose to major in Spanish Studies because that gave her a better insight into the cultural practices and differences between the various different ethnicities of Europe and Latin America.

“It’s a very personal business,” Linderman says. “I deal with people’s lives. I have to ask questions that get very personal.”

In fact, while many businesses glean information about a client through a standard questionnaire, an initial meeting with Linderman can take as much as a couple of hours of detailed questioning. A box of tissues is not an unusual accompaniment to a meeting with a client. Asking about an illness or a divorce can yield significant financial gains in the long term (for example, a house remodel to accommodate a new handicap can lead to a deduction), but many are sensitive matters. “I cry with them,” she admits. “I’m also human.”

Michelle Chamo, who owns Sliding Door Roller Replacement, Inc., and whose taxes, bookkeeping and payroll Linderman has handled for four years, says, “Elina will text me and say, put aside this amount this week,” says Chamo, who found Linderman when she was looking for someone to go over her previous accountant’s work. After their initial three-hour meeting, Chamo says that not only did Linderman fix the mistakes, she listened to Chamo’s concerns and patiently explained everything to her.

“I left that day knowing more about what I should be doing than in five years of owning my own business,” says Chamo, who Linderman still texts every Wednesday to remind her about payroll.

“My cell phone number is the worst kept secret in Tampa Bay,” says Linderman wryly. Not only does she have all her clients’ information on her phone, she is routinely invited to clients’ weddings and children’s birthday parties, and is a fixture on their Facebook pages, as they are on her Facebook page as well. Many of them who have been with her for years also have seen her now 16-year-old son growing up.

“You can’t get this at H&R Block,” Linderman quips.

For more information about the services that La Rusa, LLC, provides individuals and businesses, check out LaRusaTax.com. You also can visit the office at 6013 Wesley Grove Blvd., #101. For appointments, call 867-7111 or email info@larusatax.com.

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