Detroit’s Accounting Aid Society offers free tax help
Douglas Ulmer walked in room 124 of Detroit’s City Hall, ready with his W-2, Social Security card and license. The 65-year-old was 20 minutes early to his appointment.
It was his first time filing taxes in a while.
“I missed four years because I didn’t know I should file,” he admits.
That’s not to say the born-and-raised Detroiter has evaded the IRS. Before retirement, when he worked in security and plant jobs, he’d pay H&R Block to prepare his taxes. But until his older sister called recently, informing him of the Accounting Aid Society, he didn’t know he could get free tax help.
For the past 45 years, the nonprofit founded in Detroit by accountants who wanted to give back to the community has assisted low-income Metro Detroiters with their taxes. Families earning incomes up to $54,000 or individuals making up to $35,000 are eligible for the free service. Each tax season, the program serves about 22,000 people at 22 sites in Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and Livingston counties.
Spokeswoman Vicky Billington says the Accounting Aid Society has grown since the first year offering tax help in 1976 when it served 207 people and generated $51,000 in tax refunds. Since then, the program has returned over $350 million to taxpayers. Last year alone, volunteers and staffers helped residents receive $20 million in tax refunds by pointing out often-missed credits and explaining confusing terminology.
Filing nearly a month before the April 18, 2017, deadline, Ulmer was one of several residents who admitted they couldn’t file taxes themselves.
“I’ll end up getting caught or getting my own self locked up,” he says, sitting in a gray cubicle as the site coordinator reviews his paperwork. “You have some people out here who don’t care about that as long as they get some money back. If I want something back, I want something back right.”
An hour later, he was staring at a $855 refund, thanks to a property tax credit for homeowners and renters. Ulmer surmises he’ll use the money to pay bills, or maybe shop for spring clothing.
“It’s a good chunk of change,” he says. “(I’ll) just hold onto it and just spend it slowly.”
Gonza Lulika, the site coordinator assisting Ulmer, says that was “a pretty common return.”
“We see a lot of retirees coming in here,” says Lulika, a University of Michigan-Dearborn junior majoring in accounting.
As coordinator, he oversees about 15 returns a day. Many are for retired Detroiters like Ulmer, but low-wage college graduates just entering the workforce often seek the service, too.
Then there’s residents like Taneisha Bell, a single mother of three kids ages 3 to 9, who doesn’t have a job at the moment because two sons have special needs.
“Right now, I think it’s best that I don’t work because I have a lot going on,” she says, mentioning the therapy and doctor appointments, as one son has autism and another has Tourette’s syndrome. “Between the two, that’s like a job right there.”
A friend familiar with her financial struggles recommended the free tax program.
“I had an issue last year where they charged a lot (to do taxes), and I had a hard time financially, so I was just trying to look for any help for low-income families,” she says.
Combing through papers in her blue folder — a W-2 for a seasonal job at Greenfield Village, a rent lease, random receipts — Lulika discovered four tax credits she could apply: Michigan’s homestead property and home heating credits, and the federal earned income tax credit and child tax credit, which grants up to $1,000 per child under age 17.
The maximum taxpayers could receive for the earned income tax credit is $6,269 if they’re single with three or more kids and earn under $47,955.
“It’s based on your wage limits and how many kids you have. It goes up per kid,” Lulika explains, pointing out that individuals without kids earning less than $14,880 can still receive a credit up to $506.
Expecting a refund, Bell says she plans to use the money for “starting over.”
After living with an aunt temporarily, she moved to her own place in October. Just scraping by, the family slept on air mattresses.
“I still don’t have furniture,” Bell says. “So I probably will use that to get things for the kids and whatever I can for the household.”
Tax preparer intern Ashley Redd, a 23-year-old studying finance at Wayne State University, says the most rewarding part of crunching numbers is helping people in the community.
“I’m from Detroit, but working here you meet a lot of people,” she says at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center site. “You get a scope of different situations or things that’s going on in the city.”
The most “alarming” part, she says, is seeing how much Detroit residents pay for auto insurance.
“The car insurance in the city, it’s really high compared to the demographics of the city,” she says, saying the average household income she sees is $35,000-$40,000, and the average Detroiter pays $250-$400 a month for car insurance. That equates to as much as $4,800 a year.
“It doesn’t make sense,” she sighs.
Michigan filers with auto insurance can deduct up to $130 per vehicle for having personal injury protection in their insurance policy, which Redd stresses isn’t much.
But then there’s the uplifting stories — like when she helps people realize they’re eligible for the homestead property tax credit, a maximum of $1,200.
“A lot of people are under the impression that you have to own a home or pay property taxes in order to get a homestead credit, but you just have to pay rent,” she says.
Or there was the time she directed a 24-year-old to Accounting Aid Society resources to resolve an issue regarding tax returns he filed at age 17. The person who prepared his taxes gave him the 2008 first-time homebuyer credit, resulting in a whopping $10,000 refund, Redd says. You can bet the IRS went after him.
“He was so young, he didn’t understand the risk that was involved with letting someone sit there and fudge your tax return,” Redd says. “Now he’s dealing with the situation.”
In addition to 25 staffers, the Accounting Aid Society trains about 700 volunteers each year — no tax knowledge required. They spend a day getting up to speed on tax laws and another learning the software.
“Our volunteers are what keeps us going,” says Fran Bayer, site supervisor at the Oakland County Financial Hub in Ferndale. “They actually prepare the returns, and we review them to get them out, so if we didn’t have volunteers we wouldn’t be operating.”
Pleasant Ridge resident John Gryniewicz was one of five volunteers preparing 35 returns at that location on Thursday. The 63-year-old certified public account volunteered with the society in the ’70s. But then tax season ate his free time, so he returned three years ago — when retirement granted free time — to lend his skills.
“I can help people who need a hand,” Gryniewicz says. “I know what some of those places charge, and it’s just ridiculous for people in this type of economic situation to be paying somebody hundreds of dollars to get their tax return done.”
That morning, he helped Ray Willis, 53, get a $6,000 refund. The Ferndale father of four kids ages 6 to 15 is a nightly pizza delivery driver. His wife just started working as a cashier. The family gets by on $12,000 a year, so paying a tax preparer was out of the question.
“H&R Block wanted $400. That’s three weeks pay for me,” Willis says. “I’ve got a special needs child, a son who’s diabetic, so ... I’m always looking for any help I can get.”
The five grand he received from the earned income tax credit will pay off his $5,000 credit card debt and relieve some financial burden, but Willis was honest.
“I was hoping for more,” he says.
Accounting Aid Society tax prep locations
Coleman A. Young Municipal Center
2 Woodward, Room 124, Detroit
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday
Osborn Financial Hub
4777 E. Outer Drive, Detroit
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Northend Financial Hub
7700 Second, Detroit
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday
Southwest Financial Hub
2826 Bagley, Detroit
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Macomb County Central Action Center
196 North Rose, Mt. Clemens
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday
Macomb County South Action Center
11370 Hupp, Warren
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Oakland County Financial Hub
1956 Hilton, Ferndale
1-8 p.m. Tuesday
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
Oakland County Treasurer’s Office
1200 N. Telegraph, Pontiac
10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday
Brighton Senior Center
850 Spencer, Brighton
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Wednesday
3:30-8 p.m. Tuesday
314 W. Grand River, Howell
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Call 313-556-1920 to schedule an appointment.
Visit accountingaidsociety.org for more information.