Washington County program helps scores of low-income, elderly taxpayers

Posted April 15, 2013, at 11:40 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Of the thousands of income tax filings made in Washington County before the April 16 deadline, more than 200 were prepared with the help of a dedicated group of tax-savvy volunteers.

Since Feb. 1, seven volunteers staffed tax preparation work stations at the University of Maine at Machias, Machias Savings Bank, Washington County Community College in Calais and locations in Lubec and Milbridge through the efforts of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program.

Sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service, the free service assists low-income families and the elderly sort out potentially baffling rules and exceptions to rules associated with what’s owed and what’s not.

“We’re usually helping people who earn less than $55,000,” said Charlie Fritz, 70, of East Machias, who coordinates the program each spring, “We can’t help with the hard stuff like depreciation or with people who have a lot of money in stocks and bonds.”

Six people worked alongside Fritz this tax season, each certified by the IRS to prepare tax filings. Fritz said VITA also works with closely with United Way of Eastern Maine and AARP, as those two programs often provide assistance to overlapping constituencies.

The VITA program gets underway each year in February after distribution of W-2 annual earnings statements, although Fritz said a lot goes on behind the scenes ahead of time. Volunteers begin preparing their computers around November, he said, and even after tax season is over, he attends regular meetings to prepare for the next tax year.

Fritz’s involvement with the program began 31 years ago, while he was working as a custodian and taking free classes at the University of Maine. Richard Larson, a math and accounting professor, was approach by the IRS and started the first Maine branch of the VITA program. Fritz recruited student volunteers for the program as an extension of their accounting classwork. For their hands-on work doing tax returns, students received community service credits from the university.

Fritz continued with the program after his retirement in 2006. He said he enjoys helping people.

“I especially enjoy working with these strung-out older people, who come in concerned about their tax situation,” he said. “It’s great when you can sort through their records and say, ‘Don’t worry, dear; you don’t even have to file this year.’”

Fritz said the program could use more volunteers, estimating it is now assisting only about 10 percent of those VITA is designed to help.

“We get new volunteers every year,” Fritz said. “We’re always looking for people to volunteer.”

Fritz suggests that anyone interested in volunteering contact the United Way of Eastern Maine in Bangor.

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