SOUTH PORTLAND — The tax code– with its forms, credits, deductions and exemptions – can seem like a jungle, and just as intimidating for those unfamiliar with the system.
For those people, Joan Jagolinzer is a machete-wielding forest guide.
Over the years, taxes have gotten more complex, said Jagonlinzer, a volunteer tax preparer with AARP.
“I think that’s why there’s such a demand for our program. People can’t keep up with everything. They know that by going with us, they’re going to get an accurate return,” she said.
Jagolinzer has been a volunteer tax preparer since the late 1980s. Back then, she worked for the IRS, managing or auditing partnerships and corporations.
At night during tax season, she’d head over to the Dyer Library in Saco and help people do their taxes. She carried a briefcase full of forms because, back then, tax season meant carbon paper and adding machines. Today, it means a computer.
Jagolinzer lives in Scarborough and grew up in Falmouth. She graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in accounting and spent some time working at a bank before heading to the IRS, where she was the first female revenue agent in Maine.
Talk to most people about taxes and you’ll see their faces wrinkle in stress and angst. But Jagolinzer said she loves working with numbers and taxes – and it shows; she retired from the IRS in 2000 and has been a volunteer tax preparer ever since, including as the state coordinator until 2006.
She can’t get enough.
“I’m much better at numbers than I am at spelling and pronouncing names,” she said. “When you think of an accountant, you always think of someone in a back room with a green shade who’s kind of an introvert. I like this program because you’re using your brain, but you’re also interacting and helping people.”
AARP’s Tax-Aide program helped 2.6 million people file their taxes last year.
Though the majority of those people were 60 years old or older, the program has no age restriction. In Maine, Jagolinzer and other volunteers helped 3,000 people with their returns.
AARP Foundation claims Tax-Aide helped clients receive $1.3 billion in income tax refunds last year, and provided nearly $357 million in “social return on investment” – taxpayer savings on commercial tax services, missed earned-income tax credits, federal government savings reaped from electronic filing and the economic boon of tax-refund spending.
In fiscal year 2011, AARP received $5.9 million in federal money to fund Tax-Aide.
Jagolinzer said the service is especially helpful for the young and elderly, who may not know about all the different tax credits for which they are eligible. Among the most commonly missed credits, she said, are the earned-income credit (which provides tax relief to low-income wage earners) and the education credit (which offsets the cost of higher education).
She’s full of stories about clients who came to her worried they’d owe thousands in back taxes who ended up leaving with a refund. Jagolinzer said she shares in repeat clients’ joy because she gets to know them over the years.
“We have a lot of repeat customers and they’re wonderful,” she said. “Depending on who they are, you get hugs and you remember their stories.”
“We did a gal last year, and I said, ‘What’s new with you this year?’ She told me to look at her return. Well, she’d just had a baby and she was telling me about it and she was so excited. Plus she got a child tax credit.”
But the news isn’t always good, she said. For as many happy clients who get a larger return than they expected or share milestones, there are sad stories. Elderly clients will come in alone after showing up year after year with their spouse, who recently passed away. Or new retirees will be hit with an unexpected tax bill because part-time employment resulted in taxes on their Social Security income.
“There’s always joy, but there’s sadness too,” Jagolinzer said.
Over the past decade, Web outfits such as TurboTax and TaxAct have offered tax preparation services, often including free federal return filing. AARP estimates that last year, 27 percent of taxpayers used software programs like these to file their returns.
But Jagolinzer said those services haven’t reduced the demand for Tax-Aide volunteers. She’s heard from clients that her volunteers are more efficient than TurboTax, and they enjoy the holistic explanation of their tax situations that volunteers provide.
Tax-Aide volunteers will provide free tax filing services to individuals, families and small businesses throughout southern Maine until April 17, the deadline for filing federal tax returns. For more information, visit http://aarp.us/wc38sL.
AARP’s Tax-Aide volunteers are available in South Portland, Yarmouth, Gorham, Portland, Scarborough and other Maine locations through April 17. Most locations are by appointment only, though some allow walk-ins as time allows. For more information, visit http://aarp.us/wc38sL.