Volunteers needed for tax service at Active Adult Center

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison-Park News | Published October 12, 2022

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MADISON HEIGHTS — For more than 20 years, a program at the Active Adult Center in Madison Heights has been helping people complete their taxes. Last year, four volunteers completed returns for more than 100 clients. In years prior, up to seven completed returns for 300-400 clients.

The free service, called Tax-Aide, is provided by the AARP Foundation. Organizers are currently looking for helping hands, so that even more people can benefit once the program begins early next year.

“Since this is obviously such a needed service for our community, we are hoping to grow our volunteer tax aides this year, so we can provide tax service for more clients,” said Jennifer Cowan, coordinator at the Active Adult Center, in an email. The center is located at 29448 John R Road.

Kaj Ostergaard has been a volunteer tax counselor for Tax-Aide for seven years.

“We provide free tax preparation services, primarily for low-income taxpayers and seniors. However, we don’t have age or income limitations,” Ostergaard said via email, noting the program went on hiatus in 2020 due to COVID, and had fewer volunteers as a result in 2021.

“A volunteer must first of all enjoy working with people. Also, it’s good to be fairly computer savvy and have a knack for problem-solving,” Ostergaard said. “We provide all the needed training — a fair amount of self-study and workbook problems, online classes and weekly review sessions through January. Finally, an (Internal Revenue Service) certification test. All tests are open book.”

The Active Adult Center will begin taking appointments for the Tax-Aide program in January, either in person or over the phone at (248) 545-3464. The appointments typically fill up in about two to three weeks, so call early. Other senior centers in the area also offer the service, so other locations may have openings, as well.

As for volunteers, visit aarp.org/volunteer/programs/tax-aide to start the process. The training could begin as early as mid-November, with formal classes and review sessions held once a week in January. The volunteers then begin doing work onsite Feb. 2 to April 11, working at the center every Tuesday. Volunteers will be issued Chromebooks to help them complete the returns.

“The work is very rewarding. And as an added benefit, you might learn something that can help you with your own taxes,” Ostergaard said. “The training is very comprehensive. It will cover wages, interest, dividends, capital gains, pensions, IRAs, self-employment and more. It will cover itemized deductions and various tax credits. We also cover state tax and city tax — Detroit, Pontiac, etc. There are a few things we don’t handle, such as rental income and some partnerships. And we are not certified to do military or foreign income.”

Each volunteer will have a designated person to help them during training, and new volunteers can always turn to more experienced ones for additional help completing returns. For trickier issues, Tax-Aide also has access to district and regional resources.

“A volunteer will also need to be flexible and have patience,” Ostergaard said. “I remember a situation where I had an elderly couple who only spoke Chinese. They brought their son as a translator. The son was deaf. We communicated with the help of an app on his phone. We got the taxes done.

“Most of our clients are elderly and/or low income. They may not have access to a computer, or are not computer savvy. Even with tax software, you really have to be familiar with our tax system to answer all the questions correctly,” he said. “The alternative to the free service by Tax-Aide is to go to a paid preparer. Doing taxes by hand is virtually impossible for most people.”

While it takes some training and thought, the end result feels rewarding, Ostergaard said.

“If we can get a Home Heating Credit of maybe $150 for a person making $9,000 a year, that’s probably a couple of weeks’ worth of food. We also help many people get the Michigan Homestead Property Tax Credit. That can be up to $1,500 — that makes a big difference. Some renters don’t realize that they can be eligible for this credit. Another area that can be tricky to navigate is the Education Credit. That can also be thousands of dollars,” Ostergaard said. “It is very satisfying to help the taxpayers.”