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Published: Tuesday, 2/14/2006

Free preparers help lower-income filers

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

For Nelly Conde, a mother with two small children and a job at a nonprofit agency, getting taxes done used to be a chore because of the expense and time involved.

Not any more, thanks to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program developed and designed by the Internal Revenue Service. The 30-year-old program uses volunteers to prepare tax returns for free for moderate and low-income taxpayers. The income limit is $38,000. Such sites also help the elderly and the disabled.

"I liked it because there was no fee and because of the convenience," said Ms. Conde, a mental health and domestic violence educator at Adelante Inc. in Toledo.

Northwest Ohio has nearly 50 free tax-preparation sites, in family service centers, libraries, senior citizen centers, and churches, that are sponsored by the IRS or the American Association of Retired Persons.

Richard McCray, local VITA coordinator, said the biggest challenge is to get volunteers willing to be trained on the tax software and who have the time to help the hundreds of filers expected to show up.

The volunteers completed more than 1,200 returns last tax season, resulting in more than $500,000 in refunds, with more than half of that for recipients of the earned income tax credit for the working poor, he said.

"For low-income people who don't make a lot of money, this is great. You don't have to pay hundreds of dollars to get your taxes done," said Ron Ryan, a dishwasher at the Navy Bistro restaurant near downtown Toledo.

"All I did was drop my stuff off and picked it up 48 hours later."

One site, Adelante, has been open since Feb. 3, but more than 60 returns have been finished, said executive director Sonia Troche. The average refund has been $1,500 to $2,000 for people making $18,000 to $22,000, she said, with one person to get back $7,200.

"I see it as a way to help individuals in the community," Ms. Troche said.

Susan Gibney, manager of the marketing department for the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, said the free service has been offered at branches since the mid-1980s.

"People can get the tax forms at the library, so we thought it was only natural to have some volunteers come in and help out," she said.

The library sites are staffed by AARP volunteers and cater to senior citizens, although no one will be refused help. The only problem, she said, is that the closer it gets to April 15, the more people come in.

"We do have to end up turning people away," Ms. Gibney said.

Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at

mmclaughlin@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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