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Tax commissioner: State 4 percent behind on tax returns

North Dakota Tax Commissioner Cory Fong chats with volunteer Susan Adams of Dickinson Tuesday afternoon at the Dickinson Public Library during a program designed to help individuals preparing their tax returns. The program is sponsored by AARP and run in partnership with the IRS.

After a brief delay due to federal budget issues, the 2013 tax season is well under way for U.S. citizens around the country and, of course, right here in western North Dakota.

In a state with a sizeable population of senior citizens, completing your taxes correctly and on time can sometimes be a bother, especially when it comes to certain types of non-traditional income -- such as mineral royalties.

To help with any concerns that seniors in southwestern North Dakota have, a free service is offered twice per week at the Dickinson Public Library through the AARP and Internal Revenue Service volunteers. The Tax Counseling for the Elderly program is available to all who meet certain income limits.

North Dakota Tax Commissioner Cory Fong was on hand at the library Tuesday afternoon to answer questions and to shed light on the service.

"This is a program that I really like to promote," Fong said. "These are, in many cases, retired professionals who have worked as CPAs or in other areas and have come out to volunteer their time and expertise. These volunteers are people who go through a rigorous training and certification process and, I think, they are as good as any paid professional out there -- and the service is free."

Several taxpayers were seen taking advantage of the service Tuesday afternoon as volunteers answered questions ranging from the simple to items that might seem much more complicated to those not familiar with such things as oil and gas severance to changes in retirement income.

"There are some misconceptions about needing to be an AARP member -- which is not true -- and about certain age limits," Fong said. "Eligibility is based on means testing. It's just a perfect way to marry seasoned professionals with anyone who needs tax preparation assistance. I visited with some folks who have been coming back year after year and they really trust these folks."

TCE assistance is provided at close to two dozen North Dakota locations at various times throughout the tax season. Volunteer coordinator Muriel Peterson said there are about 120 volunteers across the state participating in the program.

"All volunteers have to be recertified every year so we have to pass four different tests as required by the IRS," Peterson said. "You certainly have to know your stuff to be a volunteer. In North Dakota, there are no requirements, so you could actually hang a shingle and charge people for tax assistance whereas you need to be certified to be a volunteer within this program."

Peterson said the IRS provides the software used by volunteers and that -- unlike some paid services -- multiple forms can be completed at no charge.

Fong said that due to federal holdups related to the so-called "fiscal cliff" earlier this year, the IRS began accepting tax returns a week later than normal, which set the process back for the states.

"We're a little behind in terms of the number of returns, but that has everything to do with the fact the season got off to a slow start because of the fiscal cliff," Fong said. "All states are held up until the feds are ready to go. We're about 4 percent behind in total returns, but I have no doubt we'll catch up as the season moves along. We're certainly keeping up on all returns that are being filed."

Fong added that his office received kudos via Facebook from a taxpayer who received his return just four days after filing.

For those interested in checking the service out, it is offered with no appointment necessary on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the lower level of the Dickinson Public Library.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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