It's tax-filing season, and Marilyn Wilson is doing something she enjoys and has done for more than four decades.
From Feb. 1 to the April 15 deadline, the IBM retiree leads 80-plus Tax Aide volunteers, who range in age from 50 to 80, in preparing income tax returns for electronic filing.
"We are helping people in the area by filing income taxes for free with high-quality tax advice and preparation," says Wilson, 67, who has a friendly smile and manner,
Working under the sponsorship of the Internal Revenue Service and the AARP Foundation, her group, the Tax Aide Club of the Sun City Center Community Association, files returns electronically for a 16-year-old working a first job or someone nearing the end of a long career. There are no age or income limits, but most clients are elderly and low-income people in the area.
"We do a lot of returns for caretakers and the self-employed," she said.
Wilson is the local coordinator for the club's three sites: two in Sun City Center and one in Ruskin. The Ruskin site is in its ninth year and offers a Saturday service and Spanish-speaking volunteers on all shifts. More than half of the clients are from Sun City Center, with the other clients from half a dozen or so nearby communities.
Her base of operation is in a wing of United Community Church on La Jolla Avenue. For 26 years, the site in this retirement community has been a buzz of activity and growing every year.
"I just love working here," she said. "The best people work here, and we have the best clients."
Starting with training sessions for volunteers she conducts in January, tax season is a 16-week commitment. But for Wilson, it starts even earlier when she begins contacting volunteers in September to see who is available. She works to ensure that the volunteers are up to speed for the season. "Our volunteers are not ordinary volunteers. I trained them well. I tell them if they don't know it, ask me."
Wilson has tons of experience because for decades, she prepared income tax returns as a side business during tax season.
She said Tax-Aide preparers must pass a test on tax law. The test also has an ethics portion. They must be detail oriented and like to work with numbers. And most important, she said, "they must like people because this is a service - we are only here to serve the clients."
Mistakes on returns are frowned upon. She is proud of her group's low reject rate after the returns are filed with the IRS. She also send monthly reports to the AARP.
Clutching statements, receipts, forms and other documentation, clients are greeted by counselors at their appointed time. The large room has a low-key feel. Some come back year after year, said Wilson, who joined the Tax Aide Club after moving to Sun City Center a decade ago with Red, her husband of more than 45 years. She adds that support on the home front allows volunteers to devote their time.
"I have faithful clients who come from Tampa. I call them friends I see once a year," she said. "They will pass other free sites near their homes to come here. I think we are helping people who used to do their own taxes, but they got a little older and taxes got a little more complicated."
Wilson sees the U.S. tax code getting even more complicated for many people in 2015 and beyond, especially with the Affordable Care Act. Everyone listed on a tax return will have to show proof of health insurance. That's no problem for a retired couple on Medicare, she said, but it could be for a husband and wife with two kids. They must show they're covered or pay a penalty. As for how the ACA evolves, she said, "we don't know what is going to happen down the road."
Wilson says paying income taxes is a social arrangement. She calls the tax code a "patchwork quilt of social justice" for the past 100 years. To encourage home ownership, the government gives you a break for owning a home. It gives a tax break for having children. For other things, like casino gambling, the government tries to discourage it by taxing all winnings. But losses are not listed on tax returns unless you itemized deductions.
Wilson, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., started in the secretarial pool at IBM in her hometown straight out of high school in the mid 1960s. She always had an affinity for numbers and loved puzzles.
After taking a test while working as a secretary, she showed an aptitude for something more. That something more was being trained by IBM to be a programmer. It was new and exciting. She said training at IBM would be her college, and computer programming would be her life's work.
The mother of two daughters and a son put in a full career before retiring at age 55 from the tech giant in Raleigh, N.C.