The Ottumwa Courier

December 12, 2013

Preparing taxes from the heart

By MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
Ottumwa Courier

---- — OTTUMWA — This volunteer opportunity is different than the traditional “helper at a soup kitchen.” For one thing, volunteers can’t be afraid of computers. Or numbers.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is sponsored by the United Way of Wapello County. They’ve found that for some families, a professional tax preparer costs more money than a reduced income may allow them to spend. Wendy Davis, VITA site coordinator, said volunteers learn to use a program to input numbers, then provide free tax preparation assistance to low- and middle-income filers.

But, stressed Wendy Davis, you don’t need to be a math whiz. Davis is the local site coordinator for the program.

“They just have to be interested and be willing to spend some time doing it,” she said.

The computer really does do the bulk of the math, said a previous volunteer.

“I have no financial background, and I did it last year,” said Ali Wilson, whose office is down the hall from Davis. “The skill is really knowing where to put the information.”

She said not only was helping people fun (she’s the director at the United Way’s Volunteer Center), she felt the experience was useful providing her with a new level of comfort preparing her own taxes. While the software does do all the math, volunteers need to know basic things they’ll be asked. For example, what qualifies as income and what doesn’t? On the other hand, Wilson said, there was always someone around who could answer her questions.

“It would give somebody tax preparation experience, and somebody could use that on a resume,” Davis said.

Students who seek hours for community service, either for a class or for a college application, could also benefit.

But the people who really benefit, Davis said, are the low-income individuals getting their taxes prepared.

“It’s important because they don’t have to go to a tax service and pay $100,” she said.

When people are scraping for funds — In Iowa, 22 percent of working families did not earn enough to meet basic needs, she said — an extra $100 can seem out of reach. Skipping tax preparation, or rushing through it by themselves, may deprive a family of tax credits they are entitled too. VITA will help them get back the money they paid in over the amount they needed to pay.

“That’s the goal, maximizing benefits to our clients and to our community, but not everybody is going to qualify for [a refund],” Davis said.

VITA tax preparers receive certification online, using IRS training materials. Certification is free, Davis said, and can be completed from home.

Wilson acknowledged it did take a bit of work.

“For me, it took 30 to 40 hours, but like I said, I had no financial background. I was really starting from square one, and I found it doable,” she said.

The program is designed to teach basic tax preparation: For Wapello County’s complex income tax filers, VITA may recommend a different route.

Call the United Way of Wapello County at 641-682-1264.

— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark