Travis Wren usually does his own taxes, but this year he was stumped.
The 35-year-old bakery manager entered into a settlement last year that absolved some debt from a student loan he’d defaulted on. The resulting tax implications were beyond his ability to calculate with TurboTax software.
Wren waited several hours Thursday for an appointment at the free Tax-Aide clinic at the Silver Lake Mall in Coeur d’Alene. Three volunteers worked on his return. He had answers about 90 minutes later.
“They brought out the whole army for me,” said Wren, who figures he saved about $1,000 in tax preparation fees.
Since 1968, Tax-Aide has been taking some of the pain out of tax season. The AARP Foundation runs the free tax preparation program in conjunction with the Internal Revenue Service. The program targets low- and moderate-income people age 50 and older, but anyone can use the service. Trained volunteers help teens through centenarians with their taxes.
“We do tax returns for high school kids who had summer jobs and need to get their withholding back,” said Bob Grayson, a Seattle resident who is Tax-Aide’s regional coordinator for seven states, including Washington and Idaho. “The oldest client I worked with was 102.”
In Spokane County, about 70 Tax-Aide volunteers assist people at seven locations ranging from Medical Lake to Spokane Valley. Statewide, about 1,000 volunteers prepared 50,000 federal tax returns last year. In Idaho, 300 volunteers prepared about 20,000 federal tax returns last year and an unknown number of state tax returns.
Volunteers help people with individual tax returns and some sole proprietorships.
“We can’t do farm or farm co-op stuff, rental properties or anything with depreciation,” Grayson said.
Volunteers must take training and pass tests before they can assist people. Each completed tax return is reviewed by a second volunteer for quality control.
Although the ranks of volunteers include retired CPAs and IRS employees, not everyone has an accounting background. Tax-Aide also recruits people who enjoy doing their own taxes.
Warren Fisher, a retired civil engineer, is Tax-Aide’s regional coordinator for Kootenai and Shoshone counties. His wife, Deb Fisher, also volunteers for Tax-Aide. She’s a retired engineer, too.
“We’re not afraid of numbers – it’s all problem-solving,” Warren Fisher said. “There is some logic to what goes on, and there are rules that have to be followed.”
About 4,000 residents in Kootenai and Shoshone counties already have visited Tax-Aide for assistance. Fisher expects to serve about 5,500 clients through April 14, the last day of operations.
Silver Lake Mall provides a vacant store front for Tax-Aide’s operations. On Thursday afternoon, a steady stream of people channeled through the door. Volunteers helped ensure clients got their Idaho Grocery Credit, and sorted out whether a caregiver needed to pay employment taxes on income earned taking care of a disabled relative.
“We’ve got people here with 20 and 30 years of experience. Nothing gets by them,” said Joe Fonti, a Tax- Aide volunteer from Hayden.
Ted Sperling traveled from Newport, Washington, to get an appointment. He learned about Tax- Aide when he was working at Kootenai Health as a medical technologist.
“I had to file an Idaho return, and I never could get it right,” said Sperling, who’s now retired. “Each year, there was a penalty. So, I started coming here. I haven’t had a glitch since.”
Benjamin Shupp of Spirit Lake, Idaho, has been using the Tax-Aide program for about 10 years. He does his taxes before the appointment and has the volunteers check his work.
“I’ve suggested it to a lot of people,” said Shupp, who brought a neighbor along for an appointment Thursday. For many people, consulting Tax-Aide volunteers is a $200 to $300 savings, he said.
Tax-Aide also helps ensure that low-income families get refunds from earned income tax credits and child tax credits, which they can’t get without filing a return.
“For some of our clients, that means groceries, medicine, car repairs,” said Grayson, the regional coordinator in Seattle. “It can be a big thing for some of these folks.”
Last year, Washington residents assisted by Tax-Aide volunteers received $52 million in refunds and Idaho residents received about $20 million in refunds.
Wren, the bakery manager, won’t be getting a refund this year. The settlement over the student loan default left him with a big tax bill.
“I have the relief of getting it submitted,” he said of his tax return, “but I do owe quite a bit.”
This story was updated to correct Ted Sperling’s name.
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