ROCK HILL — Computers have replaced carbon paper as the preferred method of duplicating tax returns and calculators as the way to tabulate numbers.
The tax forms are now filed electronically rather than by the mail.
Yet regardless of how high tech the operation has become, it still starts with the No. 2 yellow pencil. A sharp pencil is still the best tool to write down the numbers needed to file income tax returns or to place a check mark on a form signaling that it has been quality checked.
So the pencils have equal status with the computers in this room, deep in what feels like the basement of Rock Hills City Hall. The room is so difficult to find, there are at least 16 signs with arrows pointing to free tax help. And, like a line of bread crumbs, the signs lead those seeking help back to City Halls lobby so they can go home, their tax returns done.
Officially, the room is the site of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program of the Internal Revenue Service. Volunteers, who have been certified in preparing federal and state tax forms, officially wait to help the elderly, the handicapped and those with low incomes.
Unofficially, no one seeking help with an individual return is turned away. About the only thing the volunteers dont do is business taxes.
Some of the 18 volunteers at this site have the minimal experience, doing returns for about six weeks. Most, however, are volunteers with years of experience, some as accountants and auditors with the states Department of Revenue.
Others have investigative skills. Others are good a reviewing numbers. Others are multilingual.
Regardless of the skills, the goal is the same: Prepare an accurate tax return that hopefully brings a smile to the face of the taxpayer when they hear the amount of their refund, or at least an understanding face when the tax bill is less than what they expected.
Joe Costner, 78, is the investigator. He was an Army intelligence officer in Vietnam and then an investigator for the Defense Investigative Service. He has been a volunteer tax preparer for 16 years.
Among his challenges this year is helping prepare a return for the estate of a deceased taxpayer who was self-employed. The tax records have been lost, so Costner is trying to recreate them by seeking bank records, deposit slips and last years tax records. He hopes the information will help him estimate the likely income as well as deductions. He hopes his forensic accounting will meet IRS standards.
Terry Houston, 67, is the numbers guy. He was an industrial engineer for textile giants Burlington and Springs before he was laid off. He likes working with numbers, so he often audits the reject pile, the returns that dont file electronically.
Often, the reason for the rejection is as simple as two transposed numbers in a Social Security number, an employer number or a date of birth, he said.
I thought this would be boring, but its not, Houston said. Each tax return is a learning experience.
And when Houston needs to consult the tax code, he is a little old-school. Instead of looking the rules up online, he consults handwritten pages of notes that have been highlighted.
This work makes you appreciate the situations people face. It will open your eyes, he said.
Bill Perry and Fran Murphy have more years of experience as auditors for the states Department of Revenue than they want to talk about. Each has been a volunteer for years, tapping into things they learned as auditors and adding new information each year.
Its hard to get rid of the knowledge, Perry, the centers coordinator, said with a grin.
So far this year, more than 1,280 people have sought tax help, Perry said.
With most people filing a federal and then a state return, thats 3,500 tax returns so far. Federal refunds alone this year total $1.3 million. Last year, the program totaled $1.5 million in federal and state refunds. Perry expects this years total to top $2 million easily.
He said the economy is one reason more people are seeking help. Another reason is, despite the best of intentions, the tax help sites on the state and IRS websites are too complicated for many to understand.
And, as always, there some people who are just too confounded by the various rules and all the numbers. Its easier to ask someone for help, and many of those coming to City Hall have been doing so for years.
The volunteer tax preparers cant give advice. They can only offer options. They dont take compensation, even though people often offer to pay them or buy them lunch.
All we want is a thank you, Perry said. And sometimes they drop off cupcakes thats OK too.
Don Worthington email@example.com