By Jason Bramwell
With only two full-time staff members and fifty volunteers, preparing several hundred tax returns for local senior citizens might seem like a daunting task for the WestArk Retired Senior Volunteer Program (WestArk RSVP) in Fort Smith, Arkansas. But thanks to a grant program offered by the IRS, the organization has been able to purchase supplies and other necessities that are used by the volunteers to help seniors file their taxes on time.
Established in 1978, the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program offers free tax help to individuals who are sixty or older. The IRS provides grants to eligible organizations, which use the funding to reimburse volunteers for out-of-pocket expenses incurred while providing tax-counseling assistance as well as to purchase equipment (e.g., computers and printers) for electronic filing purposes, as long as the cost per unit doesn't exceed $1,000 (see sidebar).
Twenty-six organizations were awarded funding last October for fiscal year 2013, according to USASpending.gov.
Applications for fiscal year 2014 grants are due May 31. Previous grant recipients will have the option to apply for up to three years of annual funding, which would reduce the amount of paperwork they must complete over the three-year period, the IRS states. This annual funding will also help recipients with budget planning.
WestArk RSVP and Fayette County Community Action Agency in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, another organization that received grant funding for fiscal year 2013, spoke with AccountingWEB about how they assist senior citizens through the TCE program.
Sponsored by the Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center, WestArk RSVP is a volunteer clearinghouse that recruits and connects active adults fifty-five and older with a variety of community volunteer opportunities, including tax-filing assistance.
"We provide free tax assistance from the end of January through April 15. We operate six days a week and at least eight hours a day. We also provide assistance one day a week from May through October 15. We have two paid staff people. That's it. It's all volunteer", Trish, volunteer manager for WestArk RSVP, who requested that her last name not be published, told AccountingWEB. "We have fifty volunteers who help get the word out. They're also the ones who prepare the tax returns for the seniors."
This tax season, the organization prepared more than 800 tax returns, and the average annual income for those who utilized WestArk RSVP's tax-preparation service was $22,000. Trish says seniors do not need to schedule an appointment to have their taxes done.
For fiscal year 2013, WestArk RSVP received a TCE grant of $15,409, Trish said. The organization used the funding to offer stipends to their volunteers as well as to purchase supplies needed to complete the 800 tax returns, such as paper, toner, ink cartridges, and Internet access, so the returns could be filed electronically.
"We're not talking about drastic stipends. We're talking about $300 for the entire season", Trish said. "We received a little over $15,000. We do a massive operation with very little funding."
WestArk RSVP has been a TCE site since 2006. Each year, the organization receives training from the IRS to provide quality tax-preparation services for seniors.
"I do all of the training and supervision during the tax season", Trish says. "When you partner with the IRS and become a TCE site, you have to become certified on the IRS training materials every year. You're trained to do basic tax returns. We prepare and file all tax returns electronically using software the IRS provides us."
Trish says the grant funding has been tremendous – not only for the organization's volunteers, but also for the seniors who benefit from the service. "TCE is a really good thing for low-income seniors", she says. "These people would have to pay anywhere from $300 to $500 to have their returns prepared if they weren't coming here."
Fayette County Community Action Agency
The Fayette County Community Action Agency received $15,000 from the TCE grant program for fiscal year 2013.
The agency offers free tax help to senior citizens and other residents of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, who make $50,000 or less annually and cannot afford professional assistance to complete their tax returns, says Madeline Sloboda, director of operations for Fayette County Community Action Agency.
"We do about 1,000 federal and state returns a year", she told AccountingWEB. "It's a walk-in service; first-come, first-served. Our site is located in the Uniontown Mall, and we get free office space there. We're there three days a week from January through tax day. We're pretty visible in the community, so the walk-in service works out great instead of doing appointments and someone not showing up. Our volunteers want to be productive."
The agency has eleven volunteers who are trained and certified by the IRS to prepare tax returns for seniors and those with lower incomes. Each volunteer was reimbursed fifty cents a mile for traveling to the site to work on returns.
"We're a little bit under the IRS's mileage reimbursement rates, but we're able to help them at least pay for some gas", she says.
The agency also used the grant money to update its computers as well as to pay for Internet access, paper, toner, and other supplies that were needed.
"Once you buy new equipment and supplies needed for the site and reimburse the volunteers, there's no money to pay for any staff", Sloboda says. "Most of our volunteers are seniors, and many have been pretty faithful to us over the past ten years. We're from a small community, and people know what days certain volunteers work. They may feel comfortable with a particular volunteer and they build up a trust, so it works out really well."
The agency uses an online version of TaxWise to prepare and electronically file the tax returns.
"We have one volunteer who goes to some of our senior sites and still prepares tax returns manually. She's seventy-eight years old. I know she could do it on the computer, and if she did, she'd probably make the switch, but she's just not ready to do that yet. The other volunteers are all comfortable with the software. They love it because it's so much easier", Sloboda says.
Without the grant funding from the TCE program, the Fayette County Community Action Agency wouldn't be able to afford the necessary equipment and supplies needed to complete tax returns for the community's seniors, Sloboda says.
"Over the past three years, we were able to update computers that were hand-me-downs from other services our organization was providing", she concludes. "We were able to cover the cost of paper and toner, which are quite expensive. And, of course, we were able to help the volunteers with some money for gas to get to the site. The grant money has been very helpful."