By Kathryn Canavan
When Gary Rauschenberger walks through the Walmart near his Butler home, shoppers who spot him say, “Oh, that’s my tax man.”“That’s my nickname—the tax man,” he said.
Rauschenberger, 64, is not a paid tax preparer. He’s a retired banker who volunteers with Tax-Aide, an AARP Foundation program with IRS-certified tax preparers who help taxpayers complete their returns for free.
Since the program was created in 1968, it has helped more than 50 million taxpayers file their taxes. Last year, preparers across the state filed 74,066 returns, and Tax-Aide clients received more than $53 million in refunds, according to state coordinators.
Mary Raabe, a retired school secretary from Butler, hasn’t fretted about doing her taxes for more than a decade. In fact, she looks forward to it. Raabe sits next to Rauschenberger or another volunteer while they complete her taxes. Every preparer goes through training that’s updated each year, and every completed return is double-checked for accuracy.
“The volunteers are great. They’re very well educated and very, very kind. And you get to talk to your neighbors while you’re waiting,” Raabe said. “They seem to do a very thorough job. I’ve never had a single problem with the IRS all through the years.”
Dean Kroh, of Cabot, a 93-year-old retired physician and Christian missionary, has been taking his taxes to Tax-Aide in Butler since 2006. “They do a very good job,” he said.
More than 1,100 residents in rural Butler County, just north of Pittsburgh, got help from Tax-Aide tax preparers in 2015. Across the state, the program operates in churches, libraries, senior centers and municipal buildings. Last year, about 1,400 volunteers worked at 315 locations.
Nationwide, Tax-Aide has about 35,000 volunteers at roughly 5,000 sites, serving about 2.6 million taxpayers annually. The program is geared toward people 50 and older and those with low to middle incomes, but all are welcome.
Roger Burbrink, 69, a state coordinator who lives in Chester County, said he wants to get the word out about the service: “You don’t have to be a senior or an AARP member. There are no age limits. We’re able to do most tax returns. We have some limitations, but they are not significant for most seniors.”
Help on other forms
Most itemized deductions are no problem, and preparers can take on a Schedule C if business expenses don’t exceed $10,000. In addition to federal and state tax forms, preparers can complete property tax or rent rebate forms.
Here’s how it works: A taxpayer brings all necessary documents to the Tax-Aide site. Then he or she sits alongside a preparer and answers questions as the preparer types the information into the computerized form. The process usually takes about an hour.
Make sure to bring a photo ID, Social Security cards and required paperwork. Check aarp.org/taxdocs for a list of documents.
Volunteers say people who use Tax-Aide once usually return year after year. Some taxpayers are so happy to have their taxes completed that they hug the volunteers at the end, said Ruth Leone, 72, a retired educator who lives in Hermitage and volunteers in nearby Sharon.
Leone has been a Tax-Aide instructor and site coordinator, and serves as an assistant state coordinator for western Pennsylvania.
“Most of our clients are repeaters, so you tend to establish friendly relationships with them, even though it’s just one day a year,” Rauschenberger said. “They like us, and we like them.”
As preparer Diane Donatoni, 62, of Malvern, put it: “This is not a paid job, but I feel I’m being paid in so many ways.”
Usually, the preparers ask all the questions, but there is one many taxpayers shoehorn in: “When will my refund come?”
To find a Tax-Aide location near you or to volunteer for next tax season, go to pataxaide.org or call 888-227-7669 toll-free.
Kathryn Canavan is a writer living in Delaware.