Archived Story

Volunteers make tax preparation easy

Published 5:21am Friday, March 23, 2012

CASSOPOLIS — As a volunteer opportunity, helping prepare income taxes doesn’t sound very attractive.

Besides giving of time, there is training involved, plus responsibility for the preparation scrutinized by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS even sends around the equivalent of secret shoppers to monitor work.

“We not only get tested on the law and the tax code,” Beth Dodge said, “but we also have an ethics test on honesty, thoroughness and no cheating. They send people out to various sites around the country with cash income to see if tax preparers help them be less than forthright.

“If we were caught cheating, not only would we get fired, the site could get terminated and the whole county would lose.”

Yet Dodge calls the experience at the Cass County Council on Aging “so gratifying,” and not just because of free lunch.

Eyes opened

“It’s scary how little money people live on,” she said.

“How do they put food on the table with $14,000 a year and they have to pay heat, lights, rent, food and drugs with no health insurance? It’s a good lesson for me.”

The four volunteers, including Larry Balok and Frank Maley, are affiliated with the AARP Foundation Tax-Wise software program.

Balok, site coordinator, is in his 90s and has been at it for 28 years.

“He did about 73 returns going to Chestnut Towers and Stone Lake Woods,” Dodge said. “Next year I hope we have a branch at the new building,” Front Street Crossing next to Dowagiac City Hall, the COA satellite senior center opening in late April or early May.

“It’s an IRS program, so we’re required to take classes online or to go to classes and take tests to qualify to do taxes,” said Diane Celie, a certified public accountant (CPA) with a background in manufacturing.
Dodge, wife of Circuit Judge Michael Dodge, practiced law in Dowagiac and managed community corrections at the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.

“Here, we’ve probably done about 200 returns,” Celie said. “We started the first week in February. Now we’re slowing down. We had the site five days a week through February, each of us three days a week.

“In the past, we only had enough space for one at a time.”

Now, the room can be subdivided. They work in pairs so they can check each other’s work.

“We can do 400 to 500 a year, February until April,” Celie said.

“The earlier you file, the quicker you get your refund,” Dodge said.

While the $400/$800 if married, filing jointly, make work pay credit has been eliminated.

“We don’t get a lot of earned income tax credits, though we had a guy, 72, from Dowagiac, who’s raising grandchildren. I’ve even had Buchanan people,” Dodge said.

“The bulk are homestead property tax credits and heat credits. Michigan is accepting those electronically this year, so that helps,” Celie said. “People can choose direct deposit or paper checks. Some people still like to have paper in hand, but we file them electronically.

“We got acceptance back on all we filed yesterday.”

Signing bonus

“I had one lady who qualified for a $500 homestead property tax credit, and she had not filed for five years because she didn’t think there was anything in it for her,” Dodge said.

“She wasn’t under any legal obligation to file, but once she learned about this opportunity to get a refundable credit, she was happier than a clam, wondering where she’d been for five years.”

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