Senior center provides free tax prep service

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Filing taxes can be a stressful — and sometimes costly — ordeal, but volunteers at the Wilson County Senior Activity Center provide free state and federal tax preparation for hundreds of elderly and impoverished residents each year.

“We get horror stories from people who have been to other tax preparers and charged like $500 for taxes that took 15 minutes,” said Jerney Minshew, the site coordinator who has been volunteering to prepare taxes since 1990. “It is not uncommon to see someone bring in last year’s taxes and see they were charged $300.”

Gloria and Stewart Brown used to pay several hundred dollars to get their taxes done, which was a significant burden on their fixed income.

“When our neighbors told us about it, we thought we’d give it a try,” said Stewart Brown. “We came out here last year, and it was first-class. This service is very nice, and the people are, too.”

The Browns said they made their Monday appointment about two weeks ago. Center program assistant Tiffany Lucas said the service is booked through the end of February. Five tax preparer volunteers and one greeter work from 1-5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays with occasional morning hours on Thursdays. Minshew said they try to do about 36 appointments a day between all of the volunteers.

Volunteer tax aide Dan Shephard said the experience has been more fun than he thought it would be.

“We have some really, really nice people who come in, and they are all really appreciative,” he said. “It is very rewarding.”

The 71-year-old retiree from Rocky Mount spent 26 years in the U.S. Navy before working in software development. A friend from church told him about the volunteer opportunity at the senior center, going through a variety of personal study, online lessons and passing five exams to prepare for the work.

Minshew said after retiring from the U.S. Air Force, he went through an H&R Block course and worked there before opting to use his skills in a volunteer capacity instead.

“It was with AARP tax counseling for the elderly, and at one time, I had all of eastern North Carolina like Kinston and Greenville with about 20 sites,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve reduced myself to this one, some time at the Snow Hill senior center and appointments in Northampton County.”

Eighty percent of the clients are senior citizens, but some low-income residents also are eligible. Minshew said about 80 percent of the clients have come year after year to take advantage of the free service. He encourages all clients to bring last year’s taxes and consider direct deposit for refunds.

“Direct deposit is a safe way because if your refund goes to your mailbox and you are not home, there is a chance someone could get it before you can,” he said. “We even had one case where the wrong address got put on there and the refund went back to the IRS, and it took about five months for the person to get it. If you do direct deposit, it is usually like two or two and a half weeks.”

Changes to the tax laws will have an effect on most residents, he said.

“They did away with the exemption for dependents. For example, last year if you have four children, you got a little more than a $4,000 deduction for each, but they did away with that this year with a standard deduction based on your filing status,” Minshew explained. “If you’re filing jointly, it is about $24,000 for a standard deduction. If you’re married and filing jointly and over 65, it is $26,200, which means that very few people will be able to itemize this year. Last year the standard deduction would have been $14,000 for people over 65, but now at about $26,000, it is hard to have donations and such come close to that. On the other hand, even though they did away with the exemption for children, they raised the child tax credit from $1,000 per qualified person under 17 to $2,000, so in a way that has made up for it.

“We found that in comparison to last year, the majority of people will save when doing their taxes with a bigger refund. Last year, employers stopped taking out as much, so they might have gotten an additional amount throughout the year. The bottom line is that for most people, the tax law has helped them — maybe not a great deal, but some.”

Lucas encouraged interested residents to set up an appointment early rather than waiting until the last minute. She said during an hour long Monday morning staff meeting, she had 36 messages and spent several hours working on scheduling appointments.

In 2018, the preparers completed 850 tax returns at the senior center and another 150 between the other two sites. Lucas said she anticipates as many, if not more, residents taking advantage of the service.

To make an appointment, call the senior center at 252-206-4059.