As tax filing deadline looms, volunteer preparers step up in Baltimore County

As tax filing deadline looms, volunteer preparers step up in Southeast Baltimore County

In years past, Phil Nores, a 74-year-old retired computer specialist from Catonsville, would prepare his taxes, photocopy them at the library and drop them in the mail.

For the past three years, he has been going to an AARP Foundation Tax-Aide site at the Catonsville Senior Center, where a trained volunteer tax preparer inputs the information he brings into a computer with software provided by the Internal Revenue Service.

"They get tricky when you're retired and you've got a 401 and a TSP and all this other stuff," he said, referring to popular retirement plans, the 401(k) and federal Thrift Savings Plan.

By the time he leaves — appointment slots are reserved in 75 minute blocks — his taxes will be prepared and filed electronically.

He says using the free service is better than risking the chance of making a mistake.

"I just give them all the forms and they have the software that puts things in their right place," he said. "I don't have to get into the technicalities, I just give them the information."

Tax preparation services remain popular in southwest Baltimore County, particularly in communities that are targets of fraudulent tax preparers, according to Alan Brody, a spokesman for the state Comptroller's office.

He said the certified organizations that provide no- or low-cost tax assistance play an important role in communities.

"It gives people confidence," he said.

The office has set up a website — MarylandTaxes.com — in which taxpayers can view a list of approved vendors and a list of tax preparers that have been suspended by the state a result of alleged fraudulent activity. Of the 3,684 registered tax preparers in the state — a figure that does not include CPAs, enrolled agents or tax attorneys, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation — 78 tax preparation offices have been suspended in the state by the comptroller.

At the Catonsville site, appointments, which opened in early February, filled up in about three weeks. About 85 percent of those who made appointments are repeat clients, said Bill Maczis, an 85-year-old retired principal who volunteers at the site.

Last year, the AARP assisted 467 people at the senior center, said its director, Nicole Sheehan.

"It's a needed service for seniors who are on a fixed income," she said.

Last year, the AARP sites in Baltimore County and Baltimore City did 6,030 returns, a 3.8 percent increase from the year prior, according to Linda Lassiter, Baltimore district coordinator for the Tax-Aide program. She credits it to more volunteers and more people finding out about the program.

This year, there are 110 volunteers assisting taxpayers at the 19 sites in Baltimore County and three in Baltimore City that encompass the district, mostly in senior centers, but some in libraries and retirement communities.

Tax season is in high gear.One million state returns had been processed by March 2, Brody said. Last year, the 1 million mark was reached March 1.

"It's pretty par for the course," Brody said, adding he expects more than 3 million returns to be filed.

Last year, the Comptroller's Office processed more than 2.6 million returns electronically. Electronic filers represented about 84 percent of the 3.2 million personal income tax returns filed last year.

There are 15 senior centers in Baltimore County that offer free tax preparation services through the AARP Foundation. Last year, more than 6,000 clients in Baltimore County and Baltimore City had taxes prepared through the program, according to Alison Vogrin of the Baltimore County Department of Aging.

With more than 5,000 locations nationwide, the AARP Foundation has assisted nearly 50 million low- to moderate-income taxpayers through its Tax-Aide program since 1968, according to its website. The service is free for people over the age of 50 who can't afford a tax preparation service.

Ed Piechowiak has volunteered with AARP for a decade, the last five as a local coordinator who keeps track of what goes on at the Catonsville Senior Center. He is one of five counselors who help prepare taxes at the site. A sixth volunteer greets people and helps them with initial paperwork.

"It's not exactly a party atmosphere," he said. "But on the other hand, when the people come in with a smile on their face and leave with a smile on their face, that's great."

In recent weeks, Michelle Jones has spent her Saturday mornings helping others with taxes at Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake in Halethorpe through the Baltimore CASH — Creating Assets, Savings and Hope — Campaign.

The coalition, which consists of foundations, nonprofits, community-based organizations, workforce development agencies, Baltimore City government, the IRS, and, last year, 246 volunteers, started in 2001 to provide services for low-income families in the Baltimore area.

Free services are provided for taxpayers — individuals or families — with incomes less than $54,000.

The service has gradually increased in demand since 2013, when the group filed 8,102 returns, said Rob Bader, director of tax operations for the campaign. The coalition is on pace to prepare more returns this year than last, when 9,331 returns were filed and more than 20,000 calls for appointments were made, he said.

Jones, a 31-year-old project manager at Bank of America from Catonsville, said she'll prepare five to seven returns a day when she is volunteering. She said it's rewarding to tell clients they are getting a refund.

Jones, like the other Baltimore CASH volunteers, had to take 11 hours of training.

In addition to the tax preparation software provided by the IRS having safeguards, once returns are completed, they get reviewed by another volunteer before they are filed.

"People are grateful for the assistance," she said.

At University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is in its second year at its campus, sandwiched between Catonsville and Arbutus. Volunteers spend at least 15 hours training prior to seeing clients.

Last year, the program assisted with 106 tax returns for people with an average adjusted gross income of $22,775. Eighty-three percent of clients got a refund.

This year, thanks to having more volunteers — the majority of them being UMBC students and staff — the site is on pace to more than double the number of clients seeking tax preparation help, said Soren Clarkwest, a site manager and UMBC junior from Baltimore City.

The center has also started expanding its hours. Originally operating on Saturdays, the volunteers now set up shop on Fridays, in an attempt to target more UMBC students and staff, he said.

The volunteers complete at least 15 hours of training prior to helping clients.

While a taxpayer may get help preparing their returns, the taxpayer is ultimately responsible for what is being sent, said Raphael Tulino, a spokesman the IRS. Any correspondence regarding an audit or a potential mistake is between the IRS and the taxpayer, he said.

"You want it to be a reflection of you accurately," he said. "You have the responsibility once you sign it."

But there's pressure, Clarkwest said.

"You remind the client they're legally responsible yet you're the one preparing it," he said.

Clarkwest remains confident.

"We know what we're doing," he said. "We're good at it, but there's always a finger of doubt that worries you that you're going to disappoint or make life harder for someone."

Deadline day

Traditionally, the deadline to file federal and Maryland taxes is April 15.

This year, the deadline is Tuesday, April 18.

This is because April 15 is a Saturday and Emancipation Day — a Washington, D.C. holiday traditionally observed April 16, celebrating the anniversary when President Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in the district — is being observed April 17.

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