Covert operation

Benjamin Franklin is credited with the quotation, “… in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Americans now are concentrating on the “taxes” component, and Margaretta Covert of Tiffin has been busy training volunteers for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. For the past 10 years, the service has been offered at the Commission on Aging on Riverside Drive; however, other arrangements have been made for 2014.

“We will be at The Salvation Army on Monday and Tuesday nights. Every other Wednesday, we will be at the library,” Covert said.

As in the past, Mondays and Tuesdays are for younger walk-in clients. Those 55 and older can make appointments for the afternoon hours every other Wednesday. In addition to Covert, the volunteers include Inis Breidenbach, Sue Reser, Sara Kessler, Shirley Wagner, Barb Goshe and Tom Joseph.

John Covert does not work on the tax returns, but he is on hand to help his wife carry supplies and get set up. This is to be her 30th year with the program.

“When I originally started, we were at the library, and I had two volunteers. We just outgrew the room, because the lobby was just full of people waiting. … They had been very good to us,” Covert said.

After that, the VITA program moved numerous times, to the Civil Defense building, the Laird Arcade, the former Salvation Army on Monroe Street and Tiffin Mall. The Commission on Aging was the most recent VITA venue.

“They were very happy to have us and we stayed there 10 years,” she said.

The commission’s move to Somerset Reception Hall left VITA without a home in 2014, though. The hall is booked for regular events all during the week, so VITA would have to pay to reserve space. Covert said she needed to set up in a location that is rent-free.

“It is a free program. Everything comes out of my pocket – all the supplies, the advertising and all. I’ve got six volunteers now and two locations. They have been with me quite a few years,” she said.

The volunteers, including Covert, must complete training in any new regulations and procedures and be certified before they can do tax returns. Covert teaches the course, so she also receives training to teach the others. The classes take place at the library for two weeks in January – three hours a night for eight days.

“Everybody’s got their books. They study at home. Then, they come in and just work on the computer,” Covert said.

Computerized filing started in 2008. Covert said the government initially provided her with one computer. The volunteers completed the returns by hand.

“Then, I would have to take them all home and put them into the computer and then transmit them. Well, then they got gracious and sent me two. … so I asked my dad for a loan to buy computers just for the VITA program,” she said.

Her dad gave her the funds, telling her to consider it part of her inheritance. Next year, the government wants computers used for tax computation to have Windows 7 or 8. Covert said her machines have Windows 98, which cannot accommodate such an extensive upgrade. She said no funds are available to buy newer computers and pay for instruction in the newer programs, so this probably will be her last year with VITA.

“A couple years ago, I sent out 217 letters to area businesses between Tiffin, Fremont, Fostoria and Upper Sandusky, asking for donations for the computers. I only got one donation. It kind of upset me. That’s when I went to my dad,” Covert said.

The government did provide a printer for the program, but it came with one package of paper – enough for about one night of work. Covert and the volunteers have been bringing their own paper. She said they typically go through four toner cartridges each season.

The demand for free tax preparation continues to grow, and people are willing to wait in line.

“They wait their turn Monday and Tuesday nights. The general public is pretty good about that. They know who’s first in line. When we were at the Commission on Aging, they would sit out in their vehicles and wait for the door to open,” she said.

“We’ve had them already come around to the back door where the volunteers come in,” her husband said.

Covert said she got started with the VITA program when Standard Oil sold its BP holdings. John drove a gasoline tanker for the company, and his hours were cut. When Covert saw an ad in the newspaper for tax preparers, she investigated.

“I had been doing my own taxes for years. So I thought, ‘OK. I’m going to go and let the government show me how to do my tax returns.’ That’s how I got started. We had several IRS agents that would come in and teach the classes,” she said.

After a few years, Covert asked to teach the classes herself, so the agents turned over that job to her. Ray Dorn became her mentor for the senior citizen tax returns. At the time, VITA was at the Commission on Aging, and she remembered rushing to close up shop so seniors could play bingo.

Most people know to bring their W2 forms, Social Security Card, photo ID and any other documents that relate to their tax returns. John said seniors started calling in December to make appointments and see when VITA would begin.

Covert’s policy is to wait until after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to schedule appointments.

She said many people pay to have their tax returns done and then bring them to VITA volunteers to be double-checked. For her, tax season extends beyond April 15. Often, Covert is asked to help correct errors that crop up. With so many rules and frequent changes, there are plenty of opportunities for mistakes, by the IRS, preparers and taxpayers alike.