Tax Help N.M. coming to Socorro

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Socorro area taxpayers will have free help available to prepare their tax returns next tax season, but volunteers are needed to pitch in.

Anyone in a household that earns less than $51,000 per year is eligible for the free tax return help.

Jeffrey Ledbetter, Tax Help New Mexico program manager for the United Way of Central New Mexico, said training starts Dec. 9 in Albuquerque for volunteers to learn all about completing tax return paperwork for low-income earners. The training is Dec. 9-12, but only half days on the first and last days; it is 24 hours of training total.

Ledbetter said the Tax Help program is funded through the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program grant, and the VITA grant pays for hotel and meal expenses, as well as provides mileage reimbursement, for any volunteers traveling from Socorro to do the training.

"If I'm going to teach you something as crazy as taxes, I'm going to be nice to you," Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter asks that those interested sign up as soon as possible, at least by the end of the business day Nov. 15. He said the program is looking for intelligent, enthusiastic people to volunteer. He said most volunteers are active, retired professionals. It is a professional service being offered, and is very challenging.

"It's like a mini boot camp," Ledbetter said about the training. "But the rewards are insane."

Theresa Hollis, federal compliance manager at New Mexico Tech and Ledbetter's first Tax Help volunteer from Socorro, said she has been hearing from her brother for years how satisfying it is to volunteer with the VITA program to help people do their taxes. Hollis' brother volunteers for the program in the Seattle area.

Hollis anticipated each Socorro volunteer will have a time commitment of only about two hours per week for six weeks during the tax season, after the initial training is completed. She said the more volunteers they can get signed up and trained, the less the time commitment for each volunteer during tax season.

Ledbetter said Socorro is a new site for Tax Help New Mexico, which is starting three new sites this coming season. In addition to Socorro, new help sites will open in Las Vegas and Carlsbad.

Last year, Ledbetter said Tax Help New Mexico hosted 28 sites across the state, serving over 19,000 taxpayers and getting over $19.1 million returned to communities. He estimated the program saved low-income taxpayers about $4.5 million in tax preparation fees.

"We're making sure low-income taxpayers get all the credits they deserve," Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter said wealthy taxpayers and corporations have resources to go through records thoroughly and find every deduction, but people who make under $51,000 per year don't have the same resource.

"We're that resource," Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter said Tax Help New Mexico aims to demystify financial services procedure. Volunteers go through returns line by line to help taxpayers understand their returns. He added VITA volunteers have a lower error rate than found with paid tax preparers, and the volunteers are better trained.

Ledbetter said Tax Help New Mexico also aims to get rid of predatory lending practices that happen on Native American reservations. He said there are individuals who literally set up a card table and advertise tax help. They lie on people's paperwork to get huge returns, then take a huge fee. It takes the IRS two years to discover the fraud, and by then the card table preparer is long gone, leaving the taxpayer "holding the bag."

Ledbetter said Tax Help New Mexico also looks to prevent identity theft.

In addition to doing simple federal and state returns, Tax Help New Mexico also helps with FAFSA preparation, Ledbetter said, which will be a help to students in Socorro. FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid students must complete to determine their eligibility for federal financial aid to pay for college.

Hollis said the Socorro location will help prepare returns for internationals, like foreign students. Ledbetter added Tax Help New Mexico volunteers are the only VITA volunteers in New Mexico doing returns for foreign nationals.

"This is an above normal challenge for Tax Help," Ledbetter said. "It's a big deal for Tax Help."

Ledbetter said Tax Help training and qualification is a "big hill to climb," and volunteers have to pass tests during their training before actually helping people prepare their returns. He stressed this volunteer opportunity is not "like packing soup in boxes," but is a challenging opportunity suited for active, enthusiastic people.

Ledbetter said Tax Help volunteers must train every year in order to keep up with tax law, unless they can pass the tests without training. He added Tax Help offers a "fast track" training option for returning volunteers.

Ledbetter urges everyone interested in volunteering to contact him at 505-247-3671 Ext. 713 or Jeffrey.Ledbetter@uwcnm.org by Nov. 15 to get signed up.