Two sites no longer able to offer free tax services

Hundreds of people in Washington County who have depended on a specific software platform for free income tax preparation will have to look elsewhere this year.

The platform, operated by the Ohio Benefits Bank and used by Caring Connection and Washington-Morgan Community Action, is no longer available. The benefits bank, which ran several digital services for more than 12 years to assist people in applying for state benefits and filing tax returns, filed for bankruptcy and closed in July.

Jim Tilley, director of Caring Connection, said Monday that the benefits bank software allowed the agency to give free assistance to income-eligible people filing their taxes while requiring little knowledge of tax laws.

“The software was very easy to use, you just took the numbers off the W-2 and it figured out the forms that were needed,” he said. “We weren’t being tax lawyers or accountants, the software figured all that out.”

The tax returns being done by Caring Connection were primarily for the benefit of low-income individuals and families who were not in complex tax situations, he said.

“It’s geared toward people who don’t make a lot of money, who couldn’t spend $300 or $400 for tax preparation,” he said. “We’re an organization based on helping low-income people, without investments or capital gains.”

Washington-Morgan Community Action also relied on the benefits bank platform to file taxes for its clients at no charge.

“Last year we got a grant from the McDonough Foundation to do tax preparation, but this year we can’t assist with taxes,” said Carrie McNamee, director of senior and community services for the agency. “We don’t have that platform any more, and it really walked you through the process, and explicitly stated there was no liability … We haven’t been able to find anything else like it.”

The benefits bank offered more than tax preparation, she said.

“When it first started 12 years ago, it had a ‘fast check’ feature that would determine eligibility for benefits to allow a better referral, and as it progressed it would send electronic applications to Job and Family Services. That was before everything was online, before you could do it with any of those agencies,” she said.

Once online forms and applications became the norm, the benefits bank functions began to become obsolete, but nothing as streamlined as the tax preparation platform has come along. Communally, the anti-poverty tech company that operated the benefits bank, stated in August of last year that organizations which used its services and provided part of its support increasingly saw their revenue streams reduced by governments.

“Washington-Morgan Community Action ordinarily prepares taxes for 250 to 300 people per year,” said McNamee.

The AARP Tax Aide Foundation provides no-cost tax preparation every year using trained volunteers, making it the only free service remaining in the area.

Stephanie Young is the Morgan County coordinator for Tax Aide. The service, she said, will have sites in Washington and Morgan counties.

“My understanding is that we will have a lot more people looking for help this year,” she said. In McConnelsville, she said, Tax Aide is offered one day a week for six hours and helps about 30 people a week.

“In Marietta, they do two or three times as many, and there are also sites in Beverly and Barlow,” she said. “Just in our little corner of the world, we come alongside a lot of folks.”

She said the volunteers are expecting a significant increase in the number of people looking for help.

“We’re all aware of it, we can only do what we can do. There are a lot of folks who benefit from this program,” she said.

AARP is still recruiting volunteers. The tax preparation service in Washington County will operate out of the Knights of Columbus hall at 312 Franklin St. in Marietta on Mondays and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. starting Feb. 3 and continuing through April 13. It will be a walk-in service, and taxpayers should bring along photo ID, Social Security cards and a copy of last year’s tax return for all family members.

The public library branches in Beverly and Barlow will also host the service. In Beverly, it will be offered Mondays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Wednesdays from 5 to 7 p.m..; in Barlow, it will be offered Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. through March 4. Both library locations require booking in advance.

Michael Kelly can be contacted at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.

Tax help

• Caring Connection and Washington-Morgan Community Action can no longer provide free income tax preparation service.

• The Ohio Benefits Bank software platform is no longer available.

• AARP Tax Aide will continue to provide free tax preparation from the first week in February to early- or mid-April.

Sources: Caring Connection, Washington-Morgan Community Action, AARP.