By Donna Liquori
In New York’s North Country, an AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program at a Plattsburgh senior center draws scores of people eager to file their income taxes early—and for free—to receive a refund to offset holiday expenses and utility bills.
But some have difficulty leaving the house. That’s where Harold Vogel comes in. The volunteer crisscrosses the Adirondacks preparing the taxes of shut-ins when he’s not at the center.
Vogel, 68, a professional tax preparer who has volunteered with the program since 1983, explained that since he doesn’t have an office, his paying clients visit him at his home or he goes to theirs, which sometimes means a drive through the wilderness.
“People have health problems and tough situations,” he said. “It makes you feel good to help them.”
When Vogel is at the Plattsburgh Tax-Aide site, he’s known as the tax guru, answering questions from other volunteers, said Kaye Curry. She oversees the Plattsburgh Tax-Aide operation at the Senior Citizens Council of Clinton County, which opened in January—earlier than most sites around the nation—because the need is so great.
“The people who really need our services need their refunds right away. We’re rural, with higher poverty up here than other counties,” Curry said. She works with a 70-member team of volunteers and accounting interns from the State University of New York Plattsburgh who process about 150 returns a day.
“What we get out of it is a deep satisfaction that we’re doing something that’s helping a large percentage of our community,” Curry said.
Ed Broderick, 73, a volunteer preparer and former state coordinator, gets paid in cookies and hugs and calls it the best job he’s ever had.
As state coordinator, the retired IBM employee oversaw a team of more than 700 volunteers, including Curry and Vogel.
Help for older residents
Tax-Aide serves about 2.6 million taxpayers nationwide every year. It’s geared toward helping people 50 and older and those with low to middle incomes, but all are welcome.
“The vast majority are so appreciative because we take away the thing that drives them nuts, and that is the fear of the IRS and taxes,” said Broderick, who works out of the Howland Library in Beacon, one of the Tax-Aide sites in the Hudson Valley.
“I say, ‘Relax, in one hour you’re going to walk out of here and have all your problems fixed. And by the way, it’s not going to cost you a cent,’ ” he said.
Broderick said volunteers also work with clients who have difficulty understanding English, often providing an interpreter.
Last year, from rural areas to big cities, more than 1,800 IRS-certified Tax-Aide volunteers helped almost 132,000 New Yorkers with their tax returns at 362 sites. The result: more than $70 million in refunds, according to AARP Foundation.
In one situation, Broderick discovered that a taxpayer was missing out on refunds that went back several years. The woman, who worked as a greeter at Walmart, thought she was due a few hundred dollars. He garnered $27,000.
“Let me tell you, the plate of cookies that showed up the next day and the next day and the next day,” he said with a big grin.
He also recalled a couple who found out they were exempt from an early IRA withdrawal penalty. Broderick informed them that they would instead get a $4,000 refund. “He starts crying,” Broderick recalled. “She dissolves into a puddle.”
The woman told Broderick: “Ed, you don’t know, with this money I can turn on my daughter’s electricity, which was cut off last week. I can now buy my granddaughter a winter coat, because she has none and she’s freezing. And I can buy boots for my 5-year-old grandson.”
To find a nearby Tax-Aide site, go to aarp.org/findtaxhelp or call 888-227-7669 toll-free. To learn what documents to bring for your appointment, go to aarp.org/taxdocs.
Donna Liquori is a writer living in Delmar, NY