Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
In 2019, the Fort Leavenworth Tax Assistance Center spent more than 1,600 hours helping retirees, soldiers and their family members save more than $350,000 on commercial tax preparation fees and preparing more than 2,000 tax returns, which resulted in more than $250,000 in state refunds and more than $1.2 million in federal refunds.
Now, the 2020 tax season is approaching and the Tax Center’s five employees and nine volunteers are completing their annual training to help eligible active-duty soldiers, Reservists, retirees and family members file their 2019 state and federal income tax returns at no cost.
With a combined experience of more than 75 years, the employees and volunteers attended the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance training course Jan. 6-10 at the Leavenworth Public Library. Trainees learned about the VITA software, federal and state tax law updates and refreshed their skills.
“(VITA) is the one that the (Internal Revenue Service) provides, and it is the only one we’re authorized to use,” said Ladonna Brunson, 17-year Fort Leavenworth Tax Center civilian tax preparer. “After 17 years, I still do the training start to finish, I have to do the testing, and it is different every year. Tax laws and forms change every year for federal as well as the 43 states who tax.”
While there are no significant changes to the tax laws this year, Brunson said the identification and documentation process is continually getting more restrictive for personal identification security. For example, each preson listed on a tax return must have a Social Security card or a government document proving his or her Social Security number.
There are limitations to who is eligible for assistance at the Tax Center, Brunson said. The most common limitation comes with rental properties. To use the center’s services, active-duty service members can only have one rental property and retirees cannot have any. Other limitations include a maximum of five state returns; no non-cash charitable contribution deductions of more than $500, and all cash charitable contributions must have proper tax receipts; and no Form 255, Foreign Earned Income. For a full list of the mandated limitations issued by the IRS, visit the Tax Center.
Though there are limitations, the Tax Center offers several benefits, too. Soldiers E-5 and below and their families can use the drop-off service instead of making an appointment. To use the drop-off service, soldiers can come in, make copies of their tax documents and drop them off. Then, the volunteers will fill out the forms and call the soldiers in to talk about it and sign the forms.
Additionally, each tax return goes through multiple people before it is filed, which helps soldiers avoid mistakes.
“There is the preparer who then reviews it with the tax payer, then the quality review is done by a third person, then there is the e-filer, and then the IRS does a pre-check for VITA sites,” Brunson said. “You’ve got five sets of eyes looking at it.”
Volunteers had different reasons why they wanted to help at the Tax Center, but helping soldiers was the most common.
“(The Tax Center) gives an opportunity for soldiers to have experts who specifically deal with military taxes,” said noncommissioned officer-in-charge Staff Sgt. Edward Alexander. “Typically, new soldiers that come into the Army, and they are usually the rank of private through specialist, they don’t know any better. A lot of these (chain and commercial) tax places out there prey on soldiers because they are young and they think they are ignorant.
“If we can get the word out that we can help them, and it is completely free of charge, it saves the soldier money,” he said. “Ultimately, that is our goal is that these soldiers are aware of what we’re doing here and that they are aware to stay away from these high-priced tax people.”
Helping soldiers and retirees is why Rod Ziemer said he is volunteering for his third year at the Tax Center.
“I’m a service officer for the American Legion, so one of my jobs as a service officer is to help military and veterans both, and I’m good with math,” Ziemer said. “Also, having (volunteered) for a couple years gives me a lot of insight into what some people can do to change their situation, to advise them properly with what the tax laws allow and do not allow.
“(Soldiers and veterans) deserve the benefit of having (taxes prepared for) free instead of going to a chain where they are going to pay for it,” he said. “I believe we’ll take a little extra time to explain how things go because we’re doing it as a service, not as a job. That is one of the other aspects this class really helps with is ensuring that we have the due diligence to get everything we can to make sure it is done honest and upright.”
The Tax Center, 651 McClellan Ave., will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and 1-4 p.m. Wednesdays. The center will be closed on federal holidays and training holidays. An opening date has not yet been determined.
To make appointments, call 684-4986 or make an appointment in person at the Tax Center. For more information, required documents and updates on the opening date, visit https://usacac.army.mil/about-cac/staff/sja/taxes.