Tampa Bay tax-help programs have fewer appointments, but lots of demand

Tampa Bay tax-help programs have fewer appointments, but lots of demand
·4 min read

PORT RICHEY — ”Hey, wassup,” Kim Grieder said, greeting an orange Mini Cooper full of tax-assistance clients on Thursday afternoon. “I’ve got your taxes for you.”

Grieder reviewed the completed tax returns with each of the three seniors as they sat in the car, explaining to James Aisthorpe, 78, that he owes money to the IRS. She danced in place as she chatted with the group in the parking lot of the Light of the World Tabernacle.

“She’s a hoot,” said Judy Hersey, 68, from the passenger seat. “I think we should come back to New Port Richey next year.”

Grieder, 58, has helped with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program for three years. It is managed by the IRS and facilitated by United Way Pasco County and other agencies across Tampa Bay to help low-income residents file their taxes, many of them seniors.

The programs are facing challenges this year because of the pandemic. In Pasco, volunteers serve clients in their cars instead of packing them into the church. In Hillsborough and Pinellas, volunteers no longer set up sites at community gathering hubs. Programs have been able to serve fewer clients as COVID-19 safety concerns reduced the number of sites and the number of volunteers.

In normal years, 12 tax assistance sites in Pasco County help as many as 8,000 people file their taxes, said Bill Humphrey, West Pasco program coordinator. This year, volunteers will help about 4,000 to 5,000 clients at 11 sites. And it has 85 volunteers, down from 101 last year.

The assistance is vital for those who can’t afford to pay for these services and for those who don’t have the internet skills to file their own taxes. The average income level of clients is about $25,000, he said.

“We provide a really valuable service to them in that they don’t have to spend $150 or $250 to get someone to do this for them,” Humphrey said.

Before the IRS extended the filing deadline to May 17, appointments were fully booked, he said. He expects the new slots that opened Wednesday night to be full by next week. Seventeen slots were booked by Thursday morning.

“It’s kind of like getting COVID shots,” Humphrey said.

A similar situation exists for the United Way Suncoast, which administers the program in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

All 30 brick-and-mortar locations have stayed open, said program director Margarita Perez, who also is senior manager of financial stability initiatives. But the program could not run its dozen or so mobile sites because there wasn’t enough room in them to socially distance, and the brick-and-mortar sites are operating at half capacity.

The program has more than 400 volunteers, which is down from last year, but enough to run its remaining locations, she said.

“What was challenging for us is the number of individuals that still needed to be served,” Perez said.

The AARP Foundation Tax-Aide also helps seniors across the country, including at sites in Pasco County. AARP also had to make changes due to the coronavirus, said Lynnette Lee-Villanueva, vice president and national director of AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, because most of the volunteers were over 70 — part of the population most vulnerable to the virus.

The program dropped from 36,000 volunteers to fewer than 30,000, she said, which also meant fewer appointments.

Before tax season began, Lee-Villanueva said, AARP created a program that allows taxpayers to file their documents virtually for a volunteer to review online, over the phone or by video. Some sites allow clients to have their documents scanned electronically or bring in hard copies and come back for a second appointment to pick up the filings.

The program also has modified some sites to allow in-person meetings with appropriate social distancing, Lee-Villanueva said. But because it provides services at senior centers, libraries, churches and other public spaces, some were unavailable due to coronavirus shutdowns, she said. Normally, the program operates 4,800 sites across the country, but this year has fewer than 4,000.

“It has been hard for both the organization and for the local volunteers to know that they’re not able to see everybody and assist everybody this year,” Lee-Villanueva said. “They see their neighbors, they see people in the grocery store that they have helped, and they don’t have the capacity to be able to do that when this has been such a year of transition.”

To book an appointment for free income tax preparation in Pasco County, go to unitedwaypasco.org/vita. To book an appointment in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota or DeSoto counties, go to https://unitedwaysuncoast.org/VITA. In addition, taxpayers in any county can request help by visiting aarpfoundation.org/taxaide.

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