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Volunteers may replace tax help centers

Attracted by radio announcements, TV ads and word of mouth, more than 3,000 people have sought out free filing help this tax season at the nonprofit Total Community Action center.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Attracted by radio announcements, TV ads and word of mouth, more than 3,000 people have sought out free filing help this tax season at the nonprofit Total Community Action center.

Such volunteer sites may well find more traffic under a Bush administration plan to close up to one-fourth of the Internal Revenue Service's 400 taxpayer assistance centers.

Total Community Action expects to help 4,000 people at its 11 centers by the April 15 filing deadline. Virtually everyone who comes through the door gets a tax refund, money that the anti-poverty center urges people to put toward savings, tuition or a home.

"It's what you do with the money that counts, not the fact that you've received it," said program consultant Harvey R.H. Britton.

With backing from the IRS, more than 70,000 volunteers at 13,800 similar sites around the nation are expected to provide free tax preparation services to 2 million low-income, disabled and older taxpayers this year.

"At times the demand or the need for this particular service seems almost infinite," said Mark Pursley, director of the IRS division that coordinates the volunteer efforts and, with the help of a Web site, teaches volunteers about tax laws.

The IRS also gives volunteer preparers some software and about 10,000 computers, with the understanding that local partners will provide two computers for every one they get from the government.

Some volunteers say there's already a shortage of computers and other resources to help everyone seeking assistance, and that situation will only worsen if planned cuts in the IRS budget for taxpayer services take place.

"If you offload a function onto the nonprofit sector that's largely done by volunteers who are donating their time, you need to provide the necessary support to do so," said David Marzahl, director of the Center for Economic Progress in Chicago.

John Dalrymple, deputy IRS commissioner for operations support, said the tax agency has developed an elaborate model to study the demand at each of its 400 service centers and the impact of closing them. One factor in choosing which will be axed is the number of volunteer sites in the area.

"We haven't actually settled on a number yet," he said. "We're getting very close."

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson said IRS changes intended to make taxpayer services more efficient and less costly mean a shift away from face-to-face help toward self-service and electronic assistance.

That doesn't work for all taxpayers, especially the poor, disabled and non-English speakers served at many walk-in centers. Fewer walk-in sites mean volunteer sites "will be the only game in town" for free return preparation, she said.

"This is a government responsibility and the government is walking away from it," said Olson, who helps taxpayers work out their problems with the IRS and monitors major problems at the agency. "They are abandoning free tax preparation to needy populations,"

This year, the IRS budgeted $18 million to support volunteer sites. Next year's budget has not been determined. The amount of money available for each site has been declining as the number of volunteer locations has grown.

Dalrymple said the IRS aims to get as many volunteer sites as possible to support themselves without the IRS. The agency also plans to boost money devoted to volunteer sites in areas that lose government walk-in centers.

"Our plans for the future are to actually continue to leverage all the partnerships that we have and find new ones and get them as self-sufficient as possible," he said.

After a study last year revealed inaccuracies in tax returns prepared at some volunteer sites, the IRS sent employees to volunteer centers to make sure they were following general procedures. Members of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants also volunteered to check that procedures designed to minimize mistakes were being followed.

The CPAs had to pretend they were low income and didn't know anything about taxes. "To be honest, we thought it was kind of an acting stretch," said Bill Stromsem, director of the AICPA tax division.