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These volunteers actually enjoy filing tax returns

Devin Kelly
Bob Hallinen

Two weeks out of every month, Jerry Fox is on the North Slope, working as an instrument technician for ConocoPhillips.

The other two weeks, Fox might be found sitting at a table in Anchorage, helping prepare other people's tax returns free of charge. On Saturday, that's exactly where he was, filing returns during a "Super Saturday" free tax preparation event as a volunteer with the AARP Foundation's Tax-Aide Program.

Each year, thousands of people seek free tax preparation help at sites across Alaska. In 2013, more than 5,200 Anchorage-area residents filed their taxes through the Free Tax Preparation Program, amounting to $8.8 million in refunds and $1.8 million in earned income credits, said Maureen Haggblom, director of community action with United Way, which organized three "Super Saturday" events between January and March.

With the April 15 filing deadline approaching, program organizers expect increased activity the next two weeks at the 10 sites in the Anchorage area, which operate at various times during the week.

At the heart of it all: a group of dedicated, unpaid volunteers with AARP's Tax-Aide Program and the Volunteer Income Tax Association, very few of whom are CPAs or accountants but donate their time to preparing returns.

The bulk of the volunteers come through the AARP program, which requires a total of 76 hours of training in tax law and computer classes.

From January to April, volunteers are asked to work a minimum of four hours each week but most give anywhere from 12 to 20 hours, said Jan Watson, the program's instructor.

The majority are retired, though some, like Fox, still work -- one is a neonatal nurse at Providence Alaska Medical Center, and another is a pilot for FedEx, Watson said. They tend to be good with numbers, detail-oriented and eager to help.

Robin Stralka, 58, is in her first year volunteering and worked at Saturday's event. She recently retired after three decades of running Northern Lights Eye Care in Midtown. On her very first day preparing taxes, one of her returns was for the child of a longtime patient at the eye care clinic, Stralka said.

"That was kind of a little hug, that 'Oh, you're doing what you're supposed to do,' " Stralka said. "You can still serve the same people, in a different way."

A volunteer can prepare a return for a person at any income level, as long as it's a basic return. The training particularly focuses on helping mid- to low-income residents.

To offset errors, AARP introduced a quality review process a few years ago. It requires a second person to check a completed return.

First-time volunteers have a big learning curve but even veterans face a constant learning process, said Elaine Lord, the local coordinator for the Crosspoint Community Church site. But that's kind of the fun part.

"In this business, you never learn it all," Lord said. "It's not routine. Every client's different, every tax return is different."

The job involves working with a diverse range of Anchorage residents. Larry Rundquist, the Tax-Aide statewide coordinator, works with 110 volunteers across Alaska, and also serves as the local coordinator at the tax preparation site in Mountain View. This year, he asked the Mountain View volunteers to start keeping track of the number of different languages they've encountered.

So far, they're up to 19 this year, he said.

Volunteer Robert Biringer, 71, said the service has become increasingly important as the tax code has grown more complicated.

"It's becoming almost impossible for someone to do it themselves," Biringer said, adding that he thinks lawmakers should make simplifying the code a priority. "People are overwhelmed with details and exceptions. They're afraid of making a mistake."

Some people take out frustration with the tax process and dislike of the IRS on the volunteers, Rundquist said. But most are extremely grateful for the help.

"It makes taxes a lot easier to cope with," said William Rodeck, 62, who came to the "Super Saturday" event with a large bag filled with documents.

While waiting her turn, Jennifer Hutson, a truck dispatcher, said she usually pays several hundred dollars for tax preparation services. But she had spent part of the last year unemployed, and money was tight. Then she got a flier in the mail advertising free help.

An AARP member, Hutson said she might look into volunteering with the Tax-Aide program in the future.

"What goes around, comes around," she said, with a smile.

For more information on free tax prep help, visit the online version of this story at adn.com.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.


By DEVIN KELLY
dkelly@adn.com
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