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Free tax filing help is on hold in Columbia County, but free online options are available for most filers.

PMG FILE PHOTO - The St. Helens Senior Center usually hosts a free tax preparation service in the lead-up to April 15, but the pandemic has fouled those plans so far in 2021.With Tax Day coming up in less than two months, no free tax filing assistance has yet been made available in Columbia County, another indication of how COVID-19 continues to affect every aspect of life in the county.

In previous years, senior centers in Scappoose and St. Helens hosted tax filing assistance through AARP Foundation Tax-Aide. Columbia Community Mental Health also hosted a volunteer for appointments in the past, but not in 2020 due to limited staff resources.

Tax-Aide volunteers are trained and IRS-certified to provide assistance filing tax returns, according to the program's website.

Locations must receive approval from AARP Foundation before providing appointments.

Bill Ensign is the program coordinator for Oregon and is the on-the-ground leader in Columbia County and neighboring areas.

Ensign said he had been trying to open the St. Helens site for a month and a half as of Friday, Feb. 19.

The Scappoose Senior Center was cut out of plans because the available space didn't meet social distancing requirements, Ensign said. Center officials did not respond to a request for comment from the Spotlight.

"This year, with all the COVID restrictions, I have to meet the standards that AARP puts out, and they have been so strict," Ensign said.

"We have to really be careful, because we're (helping) seniors — and I'm one too," he added.

Out of the 120 usual Tax-Aide sites statewide, only 62 got a license to offer assistance this year, Ensign said.

He submitted a new request to AARP on Friday and hopes to have an update in a week.

In St. Helens, Ensign said, more than 150 people have asked for appointments.

"I don't know if I'll be able to do 150 people. I hope to, but I don't know," he said.

The tax filing season ends April 15. It began on Feb. 12, roughly two weeks later than in previous years.

In non-pandemic times, individuals would bring their relevant documents and go through the tax filing process with a volunteer. But this year, to limit contact, those who need assistance will have to make an appointment to hand off their documents to a volunteer, ask any questions they have, and then make an appointment to go over the paperwork once the volunteer has done their part.

Usually, documents never leave the individual's possession, but the new process requires an inventory procedure and more measures to make sure that an individual's documents are kept safe.

AARP offers free assistance to anyone, but it prioritizes seniors and low-to-moderate-income people.

The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs also don't have any locations in Columbia County, but they do have locations in Portland.

Online, free tax filing is available for people who make less than $72,000 through partnerships between the IRS and private tax filing companies.

In 2019, ProPublica reported that TurboTax, one of the leading tax filing programs, had intentionally hidden its truly free version from search engines. The "free" version that TurboTax advertised was different, and would frequently charge users even if they were eligible for free filing through the IRS partnership.

Often, the supposedly "free" filing programs seem free until a taxpayer is far into the filing process. To ensure you're using a truly free tax filing software before you start entering your information, go through the IRS Free File website.


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