Free Tax Aid Program Impacted by Government Shutdown and New Tax Plan

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COLUMBIA—The AARP Tax-Aide program began its yearly free service this weekend at Columbia Public Library to help mid-Missourians file their personal income taxes. 

The program provides people of all tax brackets free assistance on a first come first served basis. Tax counselors go through filers’ tax returns, a second counselor reviews the return, and an AARP volunteer electronically submits the form to the IRS. 

Michael Cox, AARP Tax-Aide program site coordinator, said the sessions were full two minutes after opening Friday and seven minutes after opening Saturday.

AARP and the library even had to turn away hopeful tax filers because there weren't enough volunteers to manage more than about 40 cases each day.

“The tax preparers are coming out of spring training,” Cox said. “We are getting limbered up. We have the new tax law to deal with… When we get up to full speed, we’ll do 60 a day.” 

The Columbia Public Library site for AARP tax-aide filed about 2,300 taxes returns last year.

Cox said it’s normal to reach near capacity each day, especially during the first weekend.

But what’s not normal are the political issues surrounding the 2019 tax filing season—Trump’s new tax plan and the recently-ended government shutdown.

Both of these have impacted AARP’s tax-aide. 

With the new tax program, the Trump administration has made changes to individual income tax rates, deductions and personal exemptions. State withholding was not high enough for some paychecks, so those people may not get the refund they expected, Cox said. 

The government shutdown also effected the AARP Tax-Aide program. No volunteers could call the IRS with questions about the new tax program, since call centers were empty.

Also, the IRS has still not provided Publication 17 for libraries to distribute. This publication lays out the general rules for filing a federal income tax return.

The publication is available online, but it is harder for tax preparers to help filers with electronic copies.

“The government shutdown didn’t really directly hurt this site,” Cox said, “but it slowed down everything as far as us getting our training materials—our publications that outline the new tax law to us. That was delayed. Normally we’d have those around Thanksgiving. This year I still don’t have one of the materials.”

Although there are some hurdles to jump, Cox said the program is fully ready to help with tax filing from Feb. 1 to April 15.

Cox said several filers came out this first weekend because they needed their refunds quickly to pay for necessities.

“They are intimidated somewhat by the rules,” Cox said. “They are afraid they may not get their refund—as much refund as possible—so they come here for help. They want it quickly. Many of them occasionally need the money for heat bills, food, rent, electricity.”

Tax-filer Terrence Burks said he and his partner went on Saturday because his partner is from the Philippines, and they anticipate difficulty filing.

Some people are exempt from AARP free tax-aide service, so it's advised to look into the rules before going to the library. 

To get free, in-person tax filing help, people can go to AARP’s website for more information.