Tax help on the go

Assistance: The Internal Revenue Service is taking its service to Maryland Rail Commuter trains to lend a hand to people with their returns.

March 02, 2000|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Crystal Coleman knew something was wrong with her taxes.

Though she had had them prepared professionally, the refund didn't seem large enough. Yesterday morning, her tax records in hand, the 45-year-old West Baltimore resident boarded a Maryland Rail Commuter service train bound for Washington wondering whether to call the government for help.

But she wouldn't have to. On the way to her job as a community supervision officer for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia, she was surprised to hear the conductor announce that representatives of the Internal Revenue Service would be providing free tax help right on the train.

"I just jumped right up," Coleman said. "It was a blessing."

The IRS' office of taxpayer education is providing the service for the 10th year on select MARC trains Mondays and Wednesdays through March 17 to answer taxpayers' questions and provide them with the appropriate forms.

Coleman rushed to the car where Karen D. Johnson and Paul Karwacki of the IRS had set up a makeshift office, with tax guides and forms spread out on the floor.

Though the mistake was on Coleman's state taxes, Johnson was able to point it out by looking over the form. Coleman's tax preparer had incorrectly put the code for Baltimore County in the local tax area, a mistake that cost her nearly $600 because of the difference in local tax rates. "I was so glad [Johnson] was on this train," Coleman said. "She saved me some money."

Karwacki said the service is a good way for people with misgivings about the IRS to seek help. "A lot of people are hesitant about the IRS," he said. "When they find out we get dressed just like they do, it takes the edge off."

Local offices will help taxpayers file taxes and work out installment agreements for those who owe money, he said.

Wayne Shorter, 33, of Cedonia works nights as a studio engineer for Voice of America in Washington and was heading home yesterday morning when he heard Johnson and Karwacki were on the train. He wanted advice on how his mother should claim lottery winnings. Karwacki produced the appropriate forms and pointed out how to claim the winnings, and how to deduct lottery losses.

"When you itemize, you can deduct lottery losses up to the amount of your winnings," he said.

Johnson warned that to do so taxpayers should save tickets.

She advises people who use a tax preparer to double-check forms. "If you have a preparer, I would make sure what they have on the form is correct before you sign your name to it," she said.

Karwacki and Johnson said some days they help as many as five people on the 40-minute ride between Baltimore and Washington, helping to determine deductions, explaining filing options and handing out tax forms and advice. But "sometimes early in the morning you don't get many people coming through," Karwacki said.

Even if it's slow going, IRS officials say, it's worthwhile.

"If we can help inform and educate taxpayers and assist them with meeting their responsibility under the law, in the long run that's a good investment," said Domenic LaPonzina, chief spokesman for the IRS in Delaware, Maryland and Washington.

And for the taxpayers the service helps, it's a pleasant reward.

"It's very convenient," Shorter said. "They came well-stocked and well-prepared."

Help with taxes

IRS representatives will be on these MARC trains:

Tomorrow : Train 511, departing from Penn Station at 7: 10 a.m.; Train 404, departing from Union Station at 8: 37 a.m.

Wednesday and March 10: Train 843, departing from Camden Station at 5: 50 a.m.; Train 842, departing from Union Station at 7: 10 a.m.

March 15 and 17: Train 845, departing from Camden Station at 6: 25 a.m.; Train 844, departing from Union Station at 8: 05 a.m.

The IRS is also offering tax assistance from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays at several area malls:

Saturday: Security Square Mall and Towson Town Center.

March 11: Annapolis mall and The Mall in Columbia.

March 18: Laurel Center Mall and White Marsh Mall.

March 25: Owings Mills Mall and Security Square Mall.

April 8: Laurel Center Mall, Security Square Mall and White Marsh Mall.

The eight IRS offices in Maryland are open 8 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m. weekdays with extended hours until 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 8: 30 a.m. to 12: 30 p.m. Saturdays.

The IRS operates a 24-hour hotline during tax season, 800-TAX 1040. Tax forms and other information is available on their Web site,

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