Volunteers provide tax help in rural Alaska
As tax season draws to a close, an Alaskan nonprofit corporation is continuing through its annual service of providing business consulting and tax assistance programs to those in the rural areas of the state. The Alaska Business Development Center's largest program, the Volunteer Tax and Loan Program, provides free tax preparation through mail or in person to those in rural areas across Alaska that would otherwise have no access to professional tax assistance.
The program itself is primarily sponsored by the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, the Low Income Tax Clinic and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs, yet many other local and regional entities across Alaska contribute to the program and the needs of the volunteers that provide these invaluable services. The volunteers that travel to these remote communities are usually broken up into group of two to five volunteers, who spend anywhere from a weekend to an entire week providing their consultation and input into the process of tax preparation and educating the residents about their taxpayer rights and responsibilities that come from living in these communities.
"The demographics of these volunteers are about 50 percent coming from within the state and another 50 percent being from out of state," said Rebecka Bowlus, the Volunteer and Promotional Coordinator for the program. "For those who are coming from out of state, it's about going to Alaska, which a lot of people down there consider to be a third world country. It's mostly about the adventure for them, plus their skills and focus help them in learning about how the law actually affects their clients, which is something that they can certainly benefit from in seeing firsthand."
The volunteers usually go out for a week at a time, beginning their days at 9 a.m., and ending around 11 at night. While they are working, they see hundreds of clients who are needing assistance with filing their tax-related paperwork, and will only be able to take an hour or two a day for themselves to decompress from the mind numbing paperwork. However, the volunteers stay true to the cause and keep their noses to the figurative grindstone, as they know that the services they are providing are truly needed and appreciated.
"They all love it," said Bowlus. "Getting the opportunity to talk to these real clients and being there providing a service, they know it's hard but it means so much more to them knowing that they are able to provide something for these people who really need their help."
In 2013, the program's volunteers traveled to 81 separate communities to provide face-to-face assistance to those who lived there and assisted an additional 42 communities via the Anchorage Mail-In website. Through these communities, the volunteers assisted over 7,800 taxpayers with their current tax return preparations, prepared another 4,100 tax returns themselves, and assisted 922 residents who were age 60 and over, which is notably the generation that has the most difficulty with tax filings and preparation. Through their efforts, the volunteers were able to generate over $5.7 million in tax refunds for those living in these communities and it was estimated that the residents saved $1,196,064 in tax return preparation fees by having the volunteers come in and help them for free.
"As far as my personal experience goes, the people that I've seen that are the most thankful through the years are the commercial fisherman in the region because they have a unique situation where they do not have normal W-2s and they are technically a small business so their taxes are fairly complicated," Bowlus said. "I've seen some of the tax paperwork coming from fisherman be so complicated that they often don't even want to try because they are too afraid that they will mess something up, so they have always been extremely thankful for the volunteers. If they went to a professional tax service, they would have to go out to another village and probably end up paying up to $300 for someone to walk them through the process or do the taxes for them."
As commercial fisherman across the state are finishing up another year of complicated tax forms, the volunteer program is still up and running, but it will not be for long. Most of the trips to the rural areas of the state are over, but a few weeks remain for those who still need help. In the Bristol Bay region, next week will bring in the last wave of volunteers to the area. According to Bowlus, a handful of volunteers will be traveling to the areas around Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Lake, Pilot Point and Port Heiden, which will be hosted at the Native Village Building during this upcoming week. For information about the volunteer program, including service areas, visit the programs website at http://www.abdc.org/programs/vtlp/.
"Part of our original mission here at the ABDC was to help commercial fisherman start up their business, especially when going through the loan process and such," Bowlus said. "When going through the loan process with these fishers, it really helped for them to be up to date and current on their taxes, and that kind of inspired the Volunteer Tax and Loan Program, which at the very least helps these fishers be compliant with the IRS. However, for these volunteers, it has become about seeing other parts of the state and also giving back to the communities. A lot of the volunteers come from either the IRS world or the legal world and they realize that a lot of these services are unavailable to people in these areas, so it really does become about giving back and using their skills to help."