For many Americans, there are few things more taxing than preparing to file their annual income tax returns.
"It's a shame that something every American citizen has to do is so complicated," said Bob Crews, 67, of Canton.
As the Michigan coordinator for AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, Crews oversees a group of more than 1,000 volunteers who help ease that burden for thousands of taxpayers at no charge.
In 2012, Tax-Aide volunteers served more than 75,000 people at 184 sites throughout Michigan. Those taxpayers received city, state and federal refunds totaling more than $26 million. This year, organizers hope to help even more clients.
Begun in 1968, Tax-Aide now serves about 2.6 million taxpayers annually. Run in cooperation with the IRS, it is the nation's largest free volunteer tax prep program.
Although the program is geared to help low- to moderate-income seniors, there are no age or income restrictions. "Six to seven years ago, most of our clientele were senior-aged, retired persons," Crews said. "But others would call, and word of mouth spread" about the service.
Leadership training began in October for the program's computer specialists and the instructors who will train the volunteer tax preparers. The volunteer preparers will get roughly 35 to 50 hours of training.
"All tax preparers are required to attend training and pass the IRS certification test annually," Crews said, pointing out that even seasoned volunteers need to review tax law and administrative changes, as well as standards of conduct.
Jim Gonzales, a retired Detroit police officer, served as a Tax-Aide volunteer in the Downriver area for five years. "It's a good program, and … it's getting even more efficient," he said, noting that the speed and convenience of e-filing for most returns has replaced the collecting and mailing of paper returns.
"People from all walks of life volunteer," said Gonzales, 69, of Allen Park. "I've met retired engineers, a couple nurses, an airline pilot. I was really impressed with what these people did … They're trained well."
A typical session with a tax preparer takes 60 to 90 minutes. Most sites see clients by appointment only, but a few take walk-ins.