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Tax whizzes volunteer at Mahube-Otwa

Paul Stary was recently honored for 25 years of service to the Tax Aide program by program director Karen Lenius. Photo by - Vicki Gerdes

Not quite sure whether you need to file a 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ for your state and federal income taxes this year?

Does the thought of turning to TurboTax, TaxACT or one of the many other computerized tax programs and doing your returns yourself make you break out in a cold sweat?

The volunteers of the AARP Tax Aide Program are ready and willing to help -- and best of all, there's no cost to you.

Offered free of charge through the auspices of Mahube-Otwa Community Action -- which supplies many of the program's volunteers through its Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) -- AARP Tax Aide is a boon to thousands of lakes area residents who would otherwise be unable to afford professional assistance in preparing their tax returns each year.

While many people consider preparing their tax returns each year to be a daunting chore, Tax Aide volunteers actually like what they do.

"I enjoy preparing taxes," said Paul Stary, a Detroit Lakes resident who has been volunteering with the Tax Aide program for 25 years.

"It's a good mental exercise," he added. "I have fun doing tax returns -- there's a few of us who do."

While the Tax Aide volunteers are not paid for their services, all of them are certified as tax preparers by both the Internal Revenue Service and the Minnesota Department of Revenue.

"We have a training program we have to do -- about 40 hours worth," Stary said. "I don't enjoy that part too much, but it's a good mental exercise."

This year's training was unusually intensive, Stary said, because there were "a lot of little changes in the tax laws" created by the so-called "fiscal cliff" legislation passed by federal lawmakers at the end of 2012.

"That pushed us back a couple of weeks," Stary said, because the changes to the 2013 tax laws were still being finalized at the beginning of the year.

"We will start scheduling appointments next week, on Jan. 22 -- but we won't be doing any taxes until Jan. 30," said Karen Lenius, RSVP and senior programs director for Mahube-Otwa.

Though there are no income eligibility guidelines for using the services of Tax Aide volunteers, clients' gross income fell in the $21,000-$47,000 range last year, Lenius said.

"It's not only the poor that we serve ... this program is for low to moderate income families," she added. "We have more volunteers this year, which means that we can reach more people."

Hopefully, that means they may even be able to schedule a few in-home appointments for clients who find it difficult to get to the Mahube office or Detroit Lakes Public Library (which also provides space for Tax Aide consultations during the tax season).

Though not all Tax Aide volunteers have professional experience as tax preparers -- Stary was an engineer before he retired -- there are very few who do not have at least some familiarity with tax law before they start, Lenius said.

"I recruit Tax Aide volunteers, and it's always helpful if they have a working knowledge of tax laws -- or have very good computer skills," she said. "They usually have one or the other, or both."

Though they have quite a few new volunteers this year, several of them have been with the program for almost as long as Stary has - and in at least one instance, even longer.

"One of our volunteers, John Downs, has been with the program for 27 years," Lenius said, adding that he had been a math teacher with Detroit Lakes schools for many years before his retirement.

"We have well over 100 man years of tax experience between us," Stary said, adding that they also work together on solving some of the more difficult tax dilemmas -- although there are some limits to what they are allowed to do.

"We can't do anything that involves depreciation, or business expenses over $5,000," Stary said. "We also don't do farm returns."

"There are some things that are beyond the scope of what our program can do," Lenius explained.

Returns are usually completed with just one appointment, then filed online immediately.

"We do have at least two pairs of eyes looking at each return," Lenius said, in order to catch any errors or omissions before they are filed.

"If they use direct deposit, they can have their refund within seven days -- or in many cases, less than that," she added.

"We will get their refund to them as fast as we can without charging any special fees (such as those associated with 'rapid refund' loans)," Stary said.

While most of the Tax Aide volunteers are also RSVP members, it is not a requirement.

"Though we like our volunteers to enroll in RSVP, it is their choice," Lenius said, adding that being an RSVP member has a few advantages, including secondary insurance coverage in case they are injured while volunteering with the program.

"RSVP also works with AARP to provide image reimbursement for our volunteers," Lenius said. "And we have a recognition event at the end (of the tax season) -- our volunteers are incredibly valuable to us."

For more information, or to schedule a Tax Aide appointment, call Mahube-Otwa Community Action at 218-847-1385.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454