Merlene Davis: Volunteers needed to help with tax preparation

What had been a time of dread for some Kentuckians has now become a chance to exhale.

Tax-filing time is just a few weeks away. To keep filing fears and uncertainties at bay, United Way of the Bluegrass is recruiting volunteers to be trained in tax preparation so they can help others file smoothly.

Cate Mart, financial stability coordinator at the United Way, said the agency has about 50 volunteers — but needs at least 100 — to help low-income folks file their taxes at various locations in Fayette County.

Those volunteers will be trained to use Internal Revenue Service software so they can help folks file correctly, she said.

"We want to help them find the money they deserve," Mart said. "That money can lift them out of poverty. It can be really life-changing."

Many Kentuckians have experienced a decrease in earned income because of layoffs or pay cuts, and they might qualify for the federal government's earned income tax credit, a refundable federal tax credit for low- and middle-income working individuals and families. Eligibility is based on income, as is the amount of the credit. Credits can be as much as $4,800.

The IRS has estimated that 20 percent of eligible workers don't file for the credit. That's like winning a lottery and not cashing the ticket. That money could be the difference between breathing room in paying bills and drowning for some families.

Last year, the Central Kentucky Economic Empowerment Project, which partners with the IRS to provide free tax preparation, was administered by LexLinc, which closed a couple of months ago. Now, the Empowerment Project is administered by United Way.

Earlier this year, the project helped more than 3,000 Central Kentucky households claim more than $4.47 million in federal refunds, a 77 percent increase from the previous year. Of that total, $1.63 million was returned in the form of the earned income tax credit.

An additional 900 Central Kentucky taxpayers were served last year by the free service at Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, Mart said. The United Way and Community Action have joined forces this year.

Charlie Lanter, manager for program development at the Community Action, said the number of people who came to its sites earlier this year was up substantially from the year before. In 2009, 234 came in for help with taxes.

"That's about 4,000 families altogether," Mart said. "This service is in high demand. That's why we are really interested in volunteer recruitment."

Lanter admitted it's tough to recruit volunteers for tax preparation. "You've got to find someone who is really interested in and likes numbers and has the time to volunteer," he said. "They've got to like to work with folks. It's not a quick volunteer opportunity."

A lot of people hear tax preparation and assume they don't have the necessary skills. But Lanter and Mart said no skills are necessary.

The training is fairly extensive, and volunteers will leave the training sessions competent to perform the work, Mart said. At the end of the sessions, volunteers will be asked to take an online test at their leisure.

For new volunteers, the training takes all day. The next session is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the University of Kentucky College of Law. Other sessions will be scheduled as needed, beginning in January.

Volunteers, who must be at least 18 and have basic computer skills, may pick from several sites to serve and several time slots during the 11-week period from Jan. 15 and April 15. Each slot is at least three hours. Experienced leaders will be at all locations during the hours of service, in case volunteers run into problems.

If you have questions or want to volunteer, call 211. Those interested in having their taxes prepared and filed for free may call 211 beginning Jan. 3.

"We are trying to get these families the money they worked hard to earn and the money they need to survive," Mart said. "The majority of the people that file have an annual household income of under $20,000. These families need this help."