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Volunteers can help tax filers help themselves

I never liked that old Helen Reddy tune, "I am woman, hear me roar," or the perfume commercial in which the woman smugly promises to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.

But I still like to think I'm a '90s kind of gal. There's something rewarding about doing things yourself.

I mow my grass (with a self-propelled mower). I know how to fix a flat tire (not that I've ever done it). And just the other day I changed the headlight on my car. (Okay, my father-in-law helped a little.)

When it comes to taxes, however, I don't have a clue. Like millions of others, I gladly shell out my hard-earned money to an accountant who does them for me.

After they've been sent, I'm usually left with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach wondering whether the Internal Revenue Service agrees with my accountant's definition of "legal deductions."

This week, I learned it doesn't have to be that way.

Each year the American Association of Retired Persons offers a Tax-Aide program that teaches individuals how to prepare tax forms and identify deductions. The program is available to all ages.

"It's open to anyone who has to have their taxes done as long as they're in the low- to middle-income bracket," said Joe Centineo, coordinator of Hernando County's AARP Tax-Aide program.

The AARP is in the midst of its annual drive to recruit volunteers so they can be trained as tax counselors. Last year, more than 2,800 residents brought their tax forms and questions to one of 75 local volunteers for answers.

This year, I may be standing in line.

With Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, it may seem a bit premature to be thinking about taxes. Especially since people won't receive their W-2 tax forms until after the first year of the year.

"Right now, we're concerned with getting people certified (as volunteer counselors)," Centineo said.

Volunteers must pass a five-part, open-book test and attend a three-day refresher course from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 12, 13 and 14 at Grace Presbyterian Church on Spring Hill Drive. Only then will they be allowed to work four hours a day, once a week, at one of 15 Tax-Aide sites in the county.

Counselors will also be available by appointment. The sites will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. from Feb. 1 to April 15.

In the past, volunteers have ranged in age from their 30s to much older. Because there have been so many tax-law changes, more volunteers will be needed this year than in previous years. Centineo said no volunteers will be turned away.

"I won't refuse anybody as long as they show they are capable of doing the work," he said.

From a personal standpoint, taxpayers can get the knowledge they need to fill out their own tax forms and demystify the intimidating process. However, volunteers will stop short of giving advice.

"(They're) not going to say how you should spend your money," Centineo said. "We're supposed to help you do your taxes. We're not accountants.

"We try to help you prepare your taxes and get the best possible deduction."

It must be working. Millions of people nationwide and thousands of Hernando residents who have used the Tax-Aide program have been able to reduce their tax bills.

"It started out as an AARP project 20 years ago in Pinellas (County) to help the people help themselves, and give assistance to people who could not help themselves," Centineo said.

That's partly what makes the program so successful.

"We look for people who want to be helped and not for people who are just looking to get away with something," Centineo said. "We do not cheat. We do our job right."

If you would like to become a Tax-Aide volunteer, contact Centineo at 686-7801.