It's not as 1040EZ as it looks

April 13, 2001 12:00 am
Don Anderson of Baker City took advantage of the tax help offered by Kelly Gallaher at Community Connection. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Don Anderson of Baker City took advantage of the tax help offered by Kelly Gallaher at Community Connection. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).


Of the Baker City Herald

When it comes to tax preparation, seniors in Baker County share many of the problems as their brothers and sisters in more metropolitan areas of the country.

Through a program sponsored by Community Connections of Baker County and the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) help is available from the first of February through the end of tax season.

The program has been available every Wednesday from February through April 11 in the meeting room at the Senior Center, 2810 Cedar St.

This season, 149 seniors received assistance in preparing their tax forms from Norma Giles, Kelly Gallaher and Ethelyn Williams. All three have backgrounds in accounting or tax preparation and are good with numbers. And they have received special training in the unique problems seniors face each April.

Giles said she was doing payrolls for her employer years ago when her boss told her anyone who needs help, you help them, with their taxes. She completed the H&R Block tax course and has been helping seniors with their taxes for eight years now.

I wouldnt want to be one of those people who does it day in and day out, but once a week is all right, she said. She said she is quite often able to save her clients some money, especially by helping them to itemize their Oregon tax returns.

The laws are so complex, I dont see how people can do it themselves, she said.

Gallaher brings a special insight to her work: she was a customer service representative for the Internal Revenue Service in Mississippi and Portland for five years.

Her original education goal was to be a teacher, but she learned that beginning teachers in Mississippi earned between $10,000 and $12,000 a year, so she accepted a position with the IRS.

Gallaher is visually impaired. She uses a guide dog or cane to get around. She has a special computer monitor that enlarges printed images on the screen and increases their focus.

In 1997, she and her husband discovered Eastern Oregon and chose Baker City, in part because theres cattle everywhere, even in the back yards, she said.

Gallaher is often accompanied by her guide dog, April, a doberman pincher.

She is a substitute teacher with 5J School District, tutors math students at the Baker County Library, and volunteers with the hospital auxiliary at St. Elizabeth Health Services.

Of her work with the seniors, It gets me out of the house, she said. I enjoy working with numbers and we (the preparers) check each others work. She added that she learned mathematics by rote as a child and is often surprised by the lack of skills exhibited by todays students.

Williams is in her second year with the senior tax program.

I worked for Guyer, Lindley and Bailey, and after I retired I wanted to see if my brain still worked.

It is worthwhile and rewarding for us to do it for people who need it. We need more preparers, though, and a computer guru. Weve been swamped this year.

Annual program

The program begins each December, when the AARP and Community Connections advertise for volunteers. New recruits receive special instruction through AARP and are set up with equipment in the center. They work once a week.

Completing a return takes anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours. A renters refund form can be completed in 15 minutes.

We dont attempt to do the complex ones, Williams said. The group turned away two or three clients this year because they needed professional help.

Seniors say they appreciate the assistance.

As client Ottilie Fagenstrom said, Oh, Im so glad this is over with! Her forms were more complex this year because her family logged some timber on their property and had severance tax liabilities on the timber in addition to the increased income tax.

Fagenstrom said her husband had a stroke and is no longer able to help with things like tax preparation. She herself was never any good with numbers, but heard about the tax service last year.

Fagenstrom said many years ago she and her husband were encouraged by the state to plant trees on their 50 acres for their retirement. They logged them this year.

Between the market for their type of trees being down, the high cost of the logging operation and the double taxes, (income and severance) she was disappointed to learn that the profit was so low and the taxes eat up all the gain.

She said there were many piles of slash left on the property and the couple would be able to salvage some for their wood stove. But having her taxes completed was a great relief to her. And Giles was able to save her a little bit by filing a different form.

Betty Percy, who needs supplemental oxygen and a cane to get around, also said the service was a great help.

I could do it myself, but its good to have them do it for me because it is a check on my figures. I only file for rental assistance, the ERA (Elder Rental Assistance) thing. Her filing system is a plastic grocery sack.

And, she adds, At my age, I do make mistakes.

Another senior taking advantage of the service Wednesday was Don Anderson, who was using volunteer help for the second time.

I used to go to H&R Block, but I come here instead. Its a job that has to be done, he said. He added that volunteers had saved him $100 on his taxes.

Williams added that many seniors trying to supplement their fixed incomes by starting up small businesses were shocked to learn they had to pay self-employment taxes even though they were retired. The most common form the helpers filed for the seniors was the renters tax relief form.

She would like to see one or two additional volunteers helping next season and believes a real need exists for someone with computer expertise to help with the hardware and programs their computers use.

Anyone interested in doing this type of work can call Community Connections at 523-6591.

Mary Jo Carpenter, county manager for Community Connections, said the tax assistance program had become more popular than ever with seniors.

We had more than normal this year and they were booked up right to the last day, she said. I see the increased use of this program and others provided by Community Connection as being the ripple effect of building this senior center.