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Have No Fear, Tax Help Is Here

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By Mac McLean

Kathy Goeddel has 32 years of experience helping taxpayers save a chunk of money when they file their returns. Best of all, her service is free.

Goeddel, a retired information systems director from Portland, listed two common tax breaks that people sometimes miss: the earned income tax credit and the retirement saver’s credit.

There are also tax credits or deductions to help people get back some of the money they spent for child care, health insurance, getting an education or finding a job.

Goeddel, 60, knows this because she spends a couple of months each year as an IRS-certified volunteer tax preparer for the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program.

Created in 1968, it’s a national effort aimed at helping low- to moderate-income people 50 and older file their tax returns so they don’t miss a single deduction or credit.

The service is free and available to anyone, regardless of age. Unless you fall within one of a few categories—if you farm or own rental property, for example—a volunteer can help you.

Last year, Tax-Aide volunteers helped more than 83,000 Oregonians with their returns. In the process, state taxpayers received more than $50 million in refunds. Goeddel said the refunds some people get can make a real difference in their lives, and that’s why she spends so much time on the program.

“You help people find money they weren’t expecting,” said Goeddel, who joined Tax-Aide in 1984 and is now a district coordinator supervising 11 of the program’s sites in northern Portland.

State coordinator Bill Ensign also joined Tax-Aide in 1984. His first assignment was working alone in the basement of a building in Beaverton that was later demolished to make room for new businesses.

“We were doing returns on carbon paper with a pencil and a pen,” said Ensign, 74, who lives in Beaverton. A retired federal employee, he has managed Oregon’s Tax-Aide operation since 2010. Back in the 1980s, it took him an hour to help a single client—and that was only if he didn’t make a mistake.

An army of 1,300
Goeddel also looks back on this time with a certain fondness. She recalls once filling out three separate returns by hand—one for the state, one for the IRS and one for the client—only to start over from scratch when the person she was helping remembered leaving a W-2 at home.

Goeddel’s work became easier in the mid-1990s when she downloaded a tax preparation software package to her personal computer and carried it with her to the Tax-Aide site.

Today, Oregon’s Tax-Aide program has mobilized 1,300 volunteers who work at around 140 tax preparation locations across the state. All preparers have received updated training. Some sites will do only about 100 returns during tax season, Ensign said, while others are geared up to handle thousands.

Sharon Looney, 62, of Eugene, said the six sites she supervised as the district coordinator for northern Lane County handled about 3,000 tax returns during the 2015 tax season. All those returns kept her working seven days a week.

"In terms of my hobbies, I’d have to say it’s probably number one,” said Looney, who acknowledges she may have done too much during the 2015 season. “I’ve got to cut back.”

Ensign also likes preparing taxes, partly because it’s a great way to keep one’s mind sharp, he said. But not every volunteer necessarily feels the same way.

“I don’t really like doing taxes,” Goeddel said. “But I really like being able to help people who could use a little extra help. There’s something about that that makes it fun.”

People who want help filling out their tax returns for 2015 can find a Tax-Aide site at aarp.org/findtaxhelp or by calling 888-227-7669 toll-free. It’s a good idea to call ahead to make an appointment.

Make sure you know what to bring to your session by checking aarp.org/taxdocs.

Mac McLean is a writer living in Bend, Ore.

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