AIKEN - For 18 years, the Aiken Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program has helped people file their income tax forms and has not charged for the work.
This year, the local group has been recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as the best VITA program in both North Carolina and South Carolina.
Tim Garvin, the coordinator for the local program, downplayed the award and said it was secondary to helping people stay straight with Uncle Sam.
"It was nice," is all Mr. Garvin said of the honor.
When presenting the award during a recent Aiken City Council meeting, IRS representative Nancy Richmon said the group is known throughout the region as having the fewest problems with their tax returns, while still assisting a large number of people.
VITA depends on volunteers, who must pass a test to qualify and must undergo training on tax law changes each year before starting the annual program of assistance. But the group never seems to lack personnel, who are drawn from the ranks of the retired.
"Luckily, we have people who recommend friends," Mr. Garvin said. "That is, by far, the best way to (recruit volunteers) ... because it is a little more complicated than just wanting to do it."
Bob Overman has been a VITA volunteer all 18 years that it's been in Aiken. "I enjoy it," Mr. Overman said. "There are a few headaches occasionally, but it occupies my time."
The 18 volunteers work four-hour shifts, Mr. Garvin said.
He said that as of midday Monday Aiken VITA had helped more than 500 people with their taxes.
Mr. Garvin, who has been a VITA volunteer for 14 years, said the biggest change has been the use of computers, especially for electronic filing.
"We've already done more (electronic filing) this year than we did all of last year," he said. He said only a handful of returns are sent through the mail.
The program, he said, has been helping about 65 people per day, although the pace has slowed a little in recent days. Early filers usually get refunds, while late filers owe taxes, he said, and there is usually a lull in between.
"It'll probably pick up" as the deadline for filing taxes approaches, he added. Because April 15 is a Sunday this year, the deadline has been extended to April 16.
And the VITA program will be going strong until then, Mr. Garvin said.
One of the people who received help Monday was Ms. Eloise Mundy.
"I think it's great that they do this for free," Ms. Mundy said. "I will probably continue to come to them in the future."
Perhaps the most important aspect of the VITA program is that the volunteers will help anyone, regardless of age or income.
"I know there are a lot of widows who could take advantage of this - and poor people," Ms. Mundy said. "I came out to these folks last year, and they've done a good job for me."
Some returns might be too complicated for the volunteers to handle, however.
"We're limited by our knowledge," Mr. Garvin said. "If we do not feel comfortable (doing a return), we do not do it."
The VITA program is housed in the H. Odell Weeks Recreation Center on Whiskey Road and is open Mondays and Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition to federal returns, the group can also assist with South Carolina and Georgia returns.
Reach Rick Green at (803) 279-6895 or email@example.com.