VITA's tax help proves vital in Coraopolis


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With a wad of paper-clipped drug receipts and tax bills in hand, William Moyer circles the tables staking out the first open chair. And the place isn't supposed to open for 15 minutes.

Within a half hour, the lobby is backed up with 20 people waiting to register.

"One hour," offers an elderly man in the corner without being asked, as he nods at the suggestion that this church basement sure looks more like a hospital waiting room.

One difference: Nobody's grumbling over wait times at the Coraopolis United Methodist Church and for good reason: The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program is free, nada, devoid of even a dime in co-payment.

About 425 people stopped by for help last year and the year before, said site coordinator Richard Godlewski, but he's predicting that 2008 will produce a bumper crop approaching 500.

Nothing brings taxpayers out in more volume than the promise of rebate checks, he says, particularly among those with negligible income who wouldn't need to file a federal return otherwise.

"It's because of the economic stimulus package. Anybody who files a return gets a minimum of $300 to $600, but you have to file the return," he says.

VITA offers those who earn no more than roughly $40,000 assistance in preparing their state or federal taxes. Hours can vary depending on location, but the one in Coraopolis is open through March 31 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Certified volunteers receive training to help prepare basic tax returns in communities across the country. VITA sites are generally located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools and, of course, churches.

Most are retired like those they help, including the half dozen volunteers at the Coraopolis site. Good thing, too, because the training is more intensive and time-consuming than many expect -- even for veterans like Mr. Godlewski, of Coraopolis, who's been at it for six years.

Before that, he worked at the mother ship itself -- he was an IRS customer service agent Downtown for 12 years before retiring in 2000 at 62.

Despite his pedigree, he went though a week of startup training like everybody else, and has to pass a refresher course each year. If it sounds like a pretty tough way to spend retirement, it is.

He wouldn't miss a minute of it.

"I enjoyed the work I did at the IRS and retirement was what I wanted to do," he said. "But basically I wanted to help people during the filing season in ways that they can't help themselves financially."

The task facing his team can be complicated just as often by the wealth of paperwork as by the lack thereof.

"We have folks who save every envelope, every piece of literature that came to them, even newspaper articles," he says before delivering the understatement of the day.

"A tax return in some ways is quite daunting."

Mr. Moyer, 75, of Coraopolis, needs no convincing. He's a volunteer himself who helps out with the church Meals on Wheels program, which is how he found out about VITA. When it comes to tax returns, he lets someone like Chuck Johnston do the talking.

"I used to do it myself," he says of his return, "but these guys are pretty nice."

Mr. Moyer, a retired Duquesne Light Co. employee, has medical bills that make his tax situation more complicated than most who use the center.

"For most of the clients, we don't itemize, but Bill here has enough," says Mr. Johnston.

Or as Mr. Moyer puts it, "I've got $4,000 in my ears so I can hear you," referring to a hearing aid.

At 73, Mr. Johnston, of Moon, figures he's the "young pup" of this crowd. He's a retired treasurer of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of United Methodist Church and a former Gulf Oil Corp. manager of accounting.

"I enjoy working with numbers and I enjoy working with people," he says. In fact, he likes VITA so much that "there are times when I wish it was a year-round activity."

At another table, Willa Jones, 81, of Coraopolis, a school crossing guard for 46 years, is getting help from Ray Koper, 69, of Stowe. As one might imagine, she's seen a few corners and then some in her day.

"I've had corners everywhere, schools, streets, Fifth Avenue, now I'm in front of St. Joseph's," she says, a Catholic school on Fifth Avenue.

Tricky curbs, no problem. Disorderly kids, likewise.

But Ms. Jones waves off any notion that she might want to tackle her own tax return. "Numbers, they can really get you," she says.

Mr. Koper, on the other hand, is as facile with a calculator as Ms. Jones is with a whistle. A 69-year-old Stowe resident, he's the retired general manager of Dravo Corp.

Mr. Koper says he got into VITA work after a friend mentioned it to him while they were vacationing in Deep Creek, Md. His friend loved doing it, Mr. Koper says, and so does he.

"I always worked with numbers. I was never scared by them," he says.


David Guo can be reached at dguo@post-gazette.com or 724-375-6815.


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