Volunteers offer free assistance to seniors and others in a program sponsored by AARP Foundation and the IRS

In taxing times - relief

February 28, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Andy Snope retired 10 years ago from a successful career as a biology professor and academic dean. Soon after, he began taking courses in tax policy. By the time he had completed 30 hours of training and taken about seven hours of tests, he was ready to go back to work.

But this time, he would not be paid.

Snope, along with more than 50 people in Howard County, has volunteered to prepare tax returns through a program sponsored by the AARP Foundation and the Internal Revenue Service.

The nationwide program gives free help with tax returns, and it provides another benefit - giving residents, mostly retirees, the opportunity to help others while enjoying a mental challenge.

While most people dread the annual rite of filing tax returns, Snope, like other volunteers, seems to relish serving as a guide through a thicket of itemized deductions and second mortgages and other tax code challenges.

"I'm one of those strange people who always enjoyed doing my own returns," said Snope, sitting in a computer-filled room at the Bain Center in Columbia helping Joan Nugent with her taxes.

"This is very different, but that's what's so great about retirement," he said.

"I get to meet a lot of nice people," he added.

Nugent, 72, said she used to fill out her tax forms, but the task has become more complicated now that she is older than 70 1/2 and has to draw money from her IRA. "When it started getting into that, I didn't want to continue doing it myself," she said.

The tax-return process for Nugent, who has eight children and lives in Columbia, would take about 40 minutes, Snope said. Most returns do not take much longer than an hour because the service is available only to people who have relatively simple returns - no real estate income, for example, and no returns outside the state of Maryland.

The service is offered primarily to seniors (people 60 and older) and low-income residents, but volunteers will not turn away somebody they can help, said John Ramsden, the site coordinator at the Bain Center.

"We're seeing more and more young people," he said. Single mothers use the service, as do about 25 members of the Howard County Association of Retarded Citizens, he said.

Last year, nearly 1,900 people in Howard County received help with their returns through the program, Ramsden said, an 11 percent increase since 2005. Seventy percent were seniors, and the average income was $27,000, he said.

Appointments can be made through April 17. Sessions are at the Bain Center, Ellicott City Senior Center, libraries and senior-living facilities. Volunteers will visit those who are unable to leave their homes, said Ramsden.

Residents using the service are encouraged to take their tax returns from the previous year. Ramsden said volunteers will do everything they can to fill in the blanks, even calling brokers to try to figure out the purchase price of a stock, for example. All finished tax returns are reviewed by another counselor before they are filed electronically, Ramsden said.

The training for first-time counselors takes 30 hours and requires an education in state and federal tax law. Before each tax season, counselors need nine hours of refresher instruction and six hours of practice tests.

Yet there are rewards. "It's an enjoyable activity when you meet with the people and can help them," Ramsden said.

At the Bain Center recently, about a half-dozen counselors were sitting at computers with clients, quietly asking questions and sometimes joking as they went through returns. A plate of cookies sat by the entrance.

"It's always nice to have some help," said Maria Moreno, 35, who was sitting with Ruth Greene.

Greene, 64, retired recently from her job as a mathematician with the National Security Agency and volunteers Thursdays, she said. "It's just something I like to do," she said. "You meet people. It's fun."

Nearby, Malcolm Wolf was helping Allen Simms of Columbia find deductions. Wolf said he has been volunteering for four years. "I have a passion to help," he said.

Simms, 53, works for Verizon and has a house that is mostly paid off, he said. He has been using the free service for five or six years, he said, partly because he does not have an Internet-connected computer. "It's convenient, and I'm always satisfied with the results," he said.

Free tax help

The Internal Revenue Service and AARP offer free personal income tax preparation for Howard County residents at locations throughout the county. To call for an appointment, contact the Ellicott City Senior Center at 410 313-1400; the Glenwood Community Center at 410 313-5400; or for all others, call the Bain Center at 410 313-7387.

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