Volunteer tax preparation growing by leaps and bounds
Tax code complexity and growing needs of low-income Canadians cited as reasons

Like many Quebecers, Sylvie Fontaine has never filled out her own tax returns. But times have been tough and this year she didn't have enough money to pay a professional. So earlier this month she brought her paperwork to the Montreal's Comité Social Centre-Sud, where volunteers fill out tax forms for lower income Canadians.

"I don't have any deductions so my returns are pretty simple," said Fontaine (not her real name). "I just bring in my papers and they fill in the documents for me. But it's a big help because I could never do it myself."

Fontaine is not alone in profiting from the free service. Last year close to half a million people relied on the Volunteer Program which Canada Customs and Revenue Agency organizes in conjunction with social services agencies like the Comité Social Centre-Sud.

Last year 16,700 volunteers, including 4,400 from Quebec, donated precious spare hours to the program which is now in its 16th year.

The Quebec program, which is run in partnership with the provincial government is getting more popular each year. The number of citizens served has more than doubled in eight years, jumping from 67,200 in 1994, to 152,800 during 2002. According to Claudette Limoges, CCRA's program coordinator for Montreal, the reasons for the program's success are varied.

"Our clientele consists mostly of lower income people, a lot of them older," Limoges said. "And although many don't have to pay taxes, they have to fill out returns to quality for GST rebates and other programs."

Tax code complexity is another big problem for many of the program's clients Limoges said.

"There is a lot to know about filling out a tax return, and since we only do it once a year, for many people it doesn't pay to learn how," Limoges said. "Even if they wanted to, our clients typically have little schooling, and they would find it difficult."

Here in Quebec, taxpayers have an even harder time than in most Canadian provinces, because they have to fill out provincial returns in addition to the federal forms. To make matters worse, there are numerous differences in the tax laws governing each jurisdiction.

Jacque Fiset, a 16-year program veteran, who completes federal and provincial returns for about 350 Quebecers each tax season agreed that the complexity of the tax code is one key reasons people come to the free clinics.

"People find the system complicated and are nervous about the rules and regulations. Many have told me they can't sleep the night before they come in," Fiset said. "(They) bring their (tax slip) envelopes unopened. They are afraid to even look inside."

Fiset, who is 73, is typical of the program's volunteers. After a company buy-out ended his 37-year career at Esso, he began looking for an activity that would keep him busy, which would also enable him to contribute something to society. He now donates four days a week to the program for about two months a year, starting at the beginning of March, when most tax clinics get rolling.

Fiset works at a variety of community groups throughout the island of Montreal that are part of the program, including some that are set up in senior citizens homes, low rent housing areas and other places that low income earners converge.

Like most volunteers he had little formal tax preparation experience, but upon signing up he was given five days of intensive training at both the federal and provincial levels. New volunteers are closely supervised and are given more latitude as they acquire experience.

But the training doesn't end there. To keep up with the constantly changing legislation Fiset takes a brief familiarization course each year.

Despite its complexity, it's highly unlikely that Canada's tax code will ever be simplified. In fact one of the easiest ways for politicians to quietly dole out favors to special interest groups is by getting seemingly innocuous favorable tax clauses inserted into existing legislation, as opposed to publicly announcing a new spending program that could draw fire from critics.

Indeed as our society becomes more complex, the tax code is likely to include even more clauses and sub-clauses in coming years. That means that CCRA's Volunteer Program has a bright future indeed.

 

 

Sidebar: Eligibility requirements
o Volunteer tax clinics serve low income Canadians. To be eligible, singles must earn less than $20,000 year.
o For single persons with one child the annual revenue limit is $26,000, plus $2,000 for each additional dependent.
o For couples the annual revenue limit is $26,000 plus $2,000 for each additional dependent.
o For information about the closest tax preparation site, call CCRA at 1-800-959-8281.
o For information about signing up for next year's CCRA volunteer program you can check out their Web-site at: http://www.ccra-adrc.gc.ca/tax/individuals/volunteer/

 

Photo caption: Jacques Fiset, shown here filling out tax returns is one of more than 4,000 Quebecers who volunteer their time providing preparation services for the province's poor.

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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