Volunteers gearing up to help with tax season

December 5, 2010 

Tax season is just around the corner, hard on the heels of Christmas and New Year's Day.

For those numerically challenged people like me, it can be a frustrating time, trying to round up tax records, then wading through the IRS forms and tax law changes.

For those of us who still have a family-wage job, we can always turn to professionals to help us fill out our tax forms and make sense of the tax code, which is written in a construct that turns English into a foreign language.

But for many seniors on fixed incomes and low-income families, filling out a tax return alone can be a daunting task. Faced with confusing forms, the tendency is to take the easy way out, which may lead to leaving a tax refund on the table.

This column serves as a reminder about two similar volunteer efforts here in Thurston County gearing up to help eligible taxpayers with their 2010 tax returns.

One is the American Association of Retired Persons Tax-Aide program, the largest free, volunteer-run tax assistance and preparation service in the nation.

AARP Tax-Aide volunteers in Thurston County last year – they numbered 60 – prepared 1,789 tax returns. Through the efforts of these trained volunteers, program participants received a collective net refund of $1,565,785, plus $433,000 in Earned Income Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits totalling $233,000.

One of the AARP volunteers is Frank Williams, a 73-year-old Panorama City resident. Williams is not a retired accountant or tax consultant of any sort. He’s a retired printer who happens to have a knack for numbers and a penchant for helping people.

The national AARP Tax-Aide program began in 1968, when four volunteers rolled up their sleeves and helped a few older taxpayers with their returns. It has grown to a team of 32,000 volunteers who last year helped 2 million taxpayers at 7,000 sites around the country. The local program is aided by United Way of Thurston County.

This is the eighth year in a row that Williams has coordinated the AARP Tax-Aide program in Thurston County.

The top priority is low-income and medium-income people 60 and older. But the AARP program also helps low-income families, young wage earners and others to file their tax forms and basic schedules, including 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ. They don’t do Schedules E and C for rental properties and businesses.

This is the time of year when Williams is busy recruiting volunteer tax preparers, each of whom is required to study materials supplied by the IRS, learn how to use an electronic tax form and pass a test.

“Very few of us are accountants or tax people,” Williams said. “Personally, I probably work 15 to 20 hours a week in the tax season. I just like helping people.”

This is the time of year when tax preparers are recruited and trained. There’s an orientation meeting for interested volunteers 1-4 p.m. Monday at the Lacey Timberland Library, 500 College St. S.E.

“We really need help in Yelm,” Williams said.

For more information about the volunteer program, contact Williams at 360-438-5551 or fwill7086@msn.com.

For information about tax sites in Thurston County – they open Feb. 1 – call 1-888-227-7669 or go to www.aarp.org/taxaide, beginning Feb. 1.

The second free tax service in Thurston County is offered as a program of the Thurston County Asset Building Coalition, which works on behalf of the 70,000 low-income adults in Thurston County to help them acquire and save assets to move out of poverty.

It’s called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. The program began last year when 57 trained volunteers helped 112 households recoup $192,882 in refunds and $73,061 in Earned Income Tax Credits, according to Stephanie Blumhagen, grants and financial stability manager for United Way.

Based on client surveys, the bulk of the refunds were used to pay bills, rent and mortgages, pay down credit cards, buy food and clothing, make home repairs and salt away some savings.

VITA can still use more volunteers to prepare 2010 tax forms. For more information about the next training sessions Jan. 8-9 and Jan. 15-16 in Lacey, go to tiny.cc/VITA_Tax_Preparer.

The VITA program expects to expand its number of tax-preparation sites this year and open them as early as mid-January. Information about the sites will be available at www.thurstonabc.org.

Christmas is still three weeks away, but we all now the Tax Man starts knocking on our doors shortly after Santa Claus exits the scene.

It’s heartening to know that Thurston County low-income families and senior citizens have two able allies at tax time.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/soundings

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