The best part of the process is “the people – not only the clients, but our co-workers, too,” in the words of tax preparer Jo Ellen McMahon, who is preparing for another season on board with VITA – Volunteers in Tax Assistance in Aiken.
She and fellow volunteer Jim Heffner offered a few thoughts on their roles this month, in looking to help dozens of neighbors get their documents in order. This year’s activity will largely be based at H. Odell Weeks Activities Center, with the addition of traditional precautions – masks and more – due to COVID-19’s ongoing presence. Assistance is free.
Clients come from around Aiken County and plenty of surrounding territory, in McMahon’s assessment. “We have some people who drive from Columbia. Haven’t figured out quite why yet, because there are VITA sites in Columbia, but when I question them, they say, ‘Well, I know the people here,’ or, ‘I grew up in Aiken, and I just work in Columbia,’ or something to that effect.”
“They’re all neat folks,” said Heffner. “They came from all over the country, had all different kinds of careers and all different kinds of interests, so they’re fun people to get acquainted with. It’s real satisfying to do tax returns for people who find it daunting. It’s a hard job for some people, so we’re happy to help out.”
Challenges along the way include “taxpayers who have a problem,” as Heffner recalled, sharing a memory of a husband-and-wife couple who came in separately – about two weeks apart – and planned to file their taxes separately. That type of proposition can represent “an expensive mistake” in most cases.
Heffner, a retired geologist, said the VITA helpers did some research and presented their findings to the couple, including the fact that a joint filing would represent a savings of about $5,000. That was a winning proposition, so the couple filed a joint return and made the necessary adjustments to hang on to a substantial sum.
Another couple, he recalled, had undergone heavy medical expenses and paid their bills by removing money from a 401K plan at work, resulting in heavy penalties – more than $10,000.
“By working with them, we were able to avoid the penalty … and found out that they had kept a cash reserve for additional bills, and if they put it back in their IRA, a lot of their problems went away. It probably saved them $5,000 or $6,000, and … it wouldn’t be intuitive to them to do that, if they were doing it themselves; so it feels real good when we can get a resolution like that.”
McMahon, a former business owner, said the local VITA corps involves 20 to 25 people.
“It varies from year to year … They are all over the map,” she said. “It is amazing … but they all like numbers, I would say. We have several CPAs. We have retired military. We have business owners. We have geologists. We have plant supervisors. We have housewives. We have all kinds of stuff.”
McMahon noted that VITA is currently encouraging people with relatively simple tax situations to handle the process with help from various websites, such as irs.gov, with free options available for many taxpayers.
Her own background includes more than a decade’s worth of tax forms and clients. “I started in tax year 2009, which would have been February of 2010,” she said.
Heffner is slightly newer to the process. “I started in 2013, which would have been tax year 2012.”
Information packets, including applications to set up an appointment for assistance, are available at the front desk of H. Odell Weeks Activities Center, at 1700 Whiskey Road.
The national program, according to its website, has been in existence for more than 50 years and offers free help for people who generally earn $57,000 or less in a year and also for those with disabilities or lacking in English-language skills.