By Larry Sussman
On his first day as a Tax-Aide volunteer, Bill Best helped a woman in her 80s. He asked if she wanted the refund check mailed to her or automatically deposited in the bank.
“I want to feel the paper,” the woman said without hesitation.
“That set the tone for me, and I knew that I would like the work,” said Best, 70, of Wauwatosa, a coordinator for four sites in the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program in Wisconsin.
“The people have nice attitudes and are so appreciative of the services that we provide,” he said.
Tax-Aide is the nation’s largest free, volunteer-run tax assistance and preparation service. It is open to anyone, but is geared toward older people with middle or lower incomes. Nearly 36,000 volunteers nationally help about 2.6 million taxpayers file their taxes annually.
“For many people, doing their taxes themselves is roughly equivalent to getting a root canal,” said Paul Swanson, 72, of Madison, the Wisconsin Tax-Aide program coordinator.
Mariann Muzzi, the AARP Wisconsin liaison for the program, said that if taxpayers do their returns themselves, “they might not know what they’re missing. With this service, the benefits could be immeasurable.”
The program has 135 Wisconsin sites, with the busiest in Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Green Bay, Wausau, La Crosse and Eau Claire.
Volunteers say they enjoy working with computers and staying current with ever-changing tax laws.
“Whenever I find new tax information, I read up on it. Taxes are what I know, and the people appreciate it,” said Rosalyn Hamrick, 86, of Brown Deer.
A retired taxpayer service representative who answered telephone inquiries for the Internal Revenue Service, she has been a Tax-Aide volunteer for the past 19 years.
Asked if the volunteer tax work keeps her feeling young, Hamrick said, “I would hope so.”
Refunds averaged $714
This year, Tax-Aide in Wisconsin had more than 800 volunteers, who filed about 42,000 federal tax returns, Swanson said. Taxpayers received federal refunds totaling about $30 million, or an average of $714 per return.
“There is no better promotion for what we do than people’s expectation that we will do it right,” Swanson said. “Most of our returns are straightforward with not a lot of gray areas. But we do get people the money that they are entitled to.”
About two-thirds of the clients come back each year, said Peter Maguire, 64, of Oak Creek, a Tax-Aide training specialist. Tax-Aide is open to anyone, but is geared toward older people with middle or lower incomes.
Maguire said he felt especially good about assisting a woman this year who had expected to get more than $1,000 in a state tax refund.
Under a new state program, Identity Verification, the woman was sent a letter asking her to answer four questions to confirm her identity. Confused by the letter, she called local police. An officer who did not know about the program told her to ignore the letter.
By mid-July, she had not received her refund. She then called Tax-Aide for help. Maguire stepped in to help her do the paperwork.
“She will get her refund, but it’s going to take time,” Maguire said. “If not, she knows where to call me.”
Tax-Aide is always looking for volunteers, said Jim Piontek, 68, of Franklin, who is a local coordinator and has been with the program for nine years.
Normally, Tax-Aide is better staffed in larger cities but has trouble filling spots in rural areas, such as Rice Lake and Antigo.
Volunteer tax preparers should be computer-savvy, be willing to attend four tax law training sessions and get along well with people. AARP and the IRS will train volunteers and then assign them to a Tax-Aide site near their homes. There are also positions for office staff and greeters at the Tax-Aide sites. Volunteers must be ready to begin work by Feb. 1.
Interested? Apply online at aarp.org/taxaide or call 877-227-7669 toll-free.
Larry Sussman is a freelance writer living in Fox Point, Wis.