Compass: Volunteer tax preparers master the forms and help their neighbors

By MICHELE BROWN and LARRY RUNDQUISTNovember 11, 2013 

Tax Day. Many people dread its arrival annually with feelings of pressure and anxiety. Not so for a special group of volunteers who happily spend the months leading up to it helping their neighbors minimize their stress and maximize their tax returns.

For the last several years, an ever increasing number of Alaskans have used Anchorage's free tax preparation services to get their taxes filed accurately and on time - thanks in large part to AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, the free volunteer-run tax preparation service that provides the majority of volunteer tax preparers. As more people learn about the service, the demand for assistance has grown. We must now grow the team of volunteers who make it happen.

That's where you come in! This month, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide and United Way of Anchorage have launched a campaign to recruit volunteers to help prepare taxes. We're looking for people who understand that the impact of their volunteer energy and knowledge can do more than earn families and individuals a little extra short-term money. Sometimes a higher refund may mean keeping the heat on or helping with rent for our most vulnerable Anchorage residents.

During our city's 2013 tax season, over 40 well-trained tax preparers filed federal tax returns for over 5,200 residents at no charge to the taxpayer. With an average tax preparation fee running approximately $300, it is estimated that this service saved Anchorage residents more than $1.5 million dollars in tax prep fees and delivered $8.8 million in refunds back to Anchorage families and our local economy.

In short, free tax preparation is an important boost for individuals and families working to improve their financial stability. The double benefit that comes from the opportunity to maximize their refunds and save on tax preparation costs would not be possible without the time and talent of volunteers.

Our goal is to assist everyone who requests assistance with filing a tax return within the scope of the program. Last year, due to the increased numbers of tax filers seeking help and a limited number of preparers, people were turned away or asked to return another day. With additional volunteers we hope to be able to meet the demand this year.

Becoming a volunteer tax preparer is easier than you think. No prior tax experience is necessary. Volunteers do need some computer knowledge, must have an e-mail address and have to have time to attend classes. Then, they'll be asked to volunteer at one of seven sites open throughout Anchorage during the tax season, which runs February 1st through April 15th. AARP Foundation Tax-Aide provides everything you need to be successful.

Schedules are flexible and volunteers can choose whichever day and site works best. Different sites have different hours and days to accommodate any schedule. There are also sites in Fairbanks, Mat-Su Valley, Kenai Peninsula and Southeast Alaska.

Training for volunteers in Anchorage starts Dec. 12. Volunteers not only have the knowledge to prepare and submit most federal tax returns, they also are rewarded with a deep feeling of satisfaction from helping fellow Alaskans through the sometimes stressful tax filing experience.

We know that Anchorage can rise to this challenge. If you or someone you know has the time and interest, go to www.aarp.org/volunteer and click on the "Become a Volunteer" box to complete an application. A volunteer coordinator will be in contact with additional information.

Larry Rundquist is state coordinator for the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide. Michele Brown is president of United Way of Anchorage.

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