Programs need a few volunteer tax preparers

A lack of volunteers has previously caused the Tax Aide programs in Champaign and Vermilion counties to reduce the hours that preparers are available to help taxpayers with filings.

But coordinators hope to find a new crop of volunteers willing to help people with their state and federal taxes.

Training for volunteers begins next week in Vermilion County and the following week in Champaign County.

"Last year we had a hard time recruiting volunteers, so we weren't open days we wanted to be open," said Coni Arseneau, coordinator for the AARP Tax Aide program in Champaign County.

"There were several afternoons we couldn't be open," said John Katsinas, a volunteer in Champaign County. "If we had more preparers, we could definitely do more returns."

Jim Smith, the coordinator in Vermilion County, said he would like to offer tax help at Danville's Village Mall five days a week.

"We had to cut down to three days a week at the mall last year because of lack of people," he said.

Requirements for volunteer tax preparers in the Tax Aide program are relatively simple, Smith said.

"As long as you can breathe," he quipped.

Seriously, they should have some familiarity with computers, an aptitude for numbers and at least average intelligence, Smith said.

"They don't have to be a rocket scientist or a tax pro," he added.

In Champaign County, volunteers should have computer skills and be able to commit to at least one four-hour daytime shift a week, Arseneau said.

"It's good if they've had experience doing their own taxes, though that's not a requirement," she said.

Perhaps the biggest requirement is having time available for training.

In Vermilion County, training will be from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Village Mall, Smith said. Training takes place in the mall's east wing, across from the Deb store and the Danville Area Community College space.

Smith said if he gets enough volunteers, he may offer training the following week as well. Prospective volunteers can contact him at 446-6978.

In Champaign County, training begins Jan. 9 at the Rantoul Public Library, 106 W. Flessner Ave., and lasts all week.

Training is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, but those with tax experience may not have to be there all week, Arseneau said.

Prospective volunteers in Champaign County can contact her at 398-1416, and they should do so soon so she can get training materials for them.

Katsinas said he has been a volunteer tax preparer for Tax Aide for about 10 years.

"I really like doing it because taxes are confusing, and our target population is primarily senior citizens," he said. The program also helps younger people who don't make much money, he added.

"You often get a genuine sense of helping people," he said.

Besides, "it's the only place where I can be called 'young man,'" said Katsinas, 58.

The Tax Aide program helps people with relatively simple returns. Those with more complex returns are directed elsewhere, Katsinas said.

"Some new volunteers are afraid they're going to make a mistake and cause problems for the person whose return we're doing," he said.

"But a lot of people with no accounting training whatsoever are able to get it done after a training session," he said.

"Plus, they're rarely there alone. A more experienced preparer is there to help guide them."

Volunteers have included retired professors, retired IRS employees, college students and some people in their 80s, Katsinas said.

Arseneau said that as of Friday, she had 20 volunteers she could count on, but she'd like five to 10 more.

Smith said he has 12 or 13 volunteers, but "five or 10 more would be fantastic."

Tax Aide volunteers in Vermilion County will begin providing assistance in February, both at the Village Mall and at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Danville.

In Champaign County, assistance is expected to be offered in Urbana, though the exact location hasn't been nailed down, Arseneau said. Last year, help was given at Urbana's Lincoln Square Village on weekdays and on Saturday mornings.

Service has also been offered in Rantoul, Mahomet, Tolono and Philo, but on an appointment-only basis.

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