Taking care of taxes
By Sue Tiffin
Published April 24, 2018
From the end of February, right through to the end of April, Marlene Watson’s family and friends know where to find her – surrounded by piles of tax returns.
This is the 13th year Watson has volunteered her time – hours and hours of it – devoted to helping local residents file their income tax returns through the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program she leads. She co-ordinates the Canada Revenue Agency program and space to run it at weekly clinics in Haliburton and Wilberforce during tax season, advertises the clinics in local media and hopes residents come out for the free service. The session is available free to any eligible taxpayers who fit program criteria (Indigenous people; low-income individuals; social assistance recipients; newcomers to Canada; seniors; and students).
And those residents do come out in droves, bringing Watson what she estimates to be about 375 tax returns each tax season that she prepares herself.
“I just love working with the seniors, and helping them out,” said Watson, who worked at Scotia Bank in Wilberforce as manager of operations for almost 30 years. “You get to know everybody. I really enjoyed working with customers and clients. And they all know me.”
It’s true – Watson, who celebrated her 80th birthday in January, and has lived in Haliburton County her entire life, is well-recognized by the people she helps. Some prefer to do their own tax returns, but still call her for help.
“This is my life,” she agrees, laughing.
Besides the Haliburton and Wilberforce clinics she hosts, Watson also makes some house calls, including to residents at an apartment in Wilberforce.
“I go to their activity room, and everybody comes to me, about 20 people,” she said. “I bring their returns home, complete them, and the next week I take them back to them. They don’t have to drive or anything, they get them delivered.”
Some returns require just 15 minutes of time, while others might need about an hour. Despite the work it takes to file so many returns, Watson says she does look forward to it each year. She remembers repeat customers well, reminding them of what they are supposed to bring along or collect in advance – like a print out from the pharmacy of the medications they bought in a year – to help them qualify for as much of a return as possible.
“I think I’ve got a lot of people trained on what they’re supposed to bring,” she laughed.
“Not only does she painstakingly prepare the returns, she routinely identifies benefits for which households may be eligible and helps them to file the necessary paperwork, such as the Disability Tax Credit which could save people thousands of dollars,” said Tina Jackson, co-ordinator of Heat Bank Haliburton County, who said she is sharing about Watson’s efforts to help the “income tax program volunteer superstar” get much-deserved recognition for her long-time work as a devoted volunteer.
“At the surface, it seems very important work because we all need to file taxes, right?” said Jackson. “However, for low-income families and seniors, tax filing is also the link to many other income supports such as the Ontario Trillium Benefit, Canada Child Benefits, Senior’s Homeowners’ Property Tax Grant, Guaranteed Income Supplement, etc. Without Marlene, there are hundreds of households who likely would not be accessing all of the income supports and benefits they are eligible for and would end up experiencing a deeper level of poverty.”
This year, Heat Bank has partnered with Watson to help link people with the OESP (Ontario Electricity Support Program) credit.
The heat bank program will provide her with an honorarium to help offset some of the printing costs of the tax program, which she generally supplies herself (Watson pays for her preferred tax program software, paper, ink refills, envelopes and her own travel, contributing about $475 alongside her volunteer hours each year).
“I did help one woman in particular quite a bit with that, which I was pleased about,” said Watson. “From the OESP she was able to get an extra $60 off her hydro bill every month. Then she got help from the Heat Bank with her oil bill. Now, assistance to help with repairs around her house. I was quite happy because she really needs it.”
Watson said eventually, depending on her health, she won’t be able to offer the program.
“They keep saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do when you quit,’” she said. “‘You can’t quit.’ Well, I say, maybe this will be my last year. ‘Oh, it can’t be. What would we do?’”
Ideally, said Watson, someone else would take over the program at that point.
In her downtime – outside of tax season – Watson said she enjoys the activities offered at her housing complex, and spending time with her two sons and their families. But she sees them during tax season, too.
“Oh yes,” she laughs. “I do all of [their tax returns] except my son’s in Bridgenorth. The other ones, I do them all. My son and his wife in Wilberforce, my grandchildren, and all my friends. My niece is coming, she’ll bring hers, and her son’s.”
But it’s time well spent for Watson.
“My eyes do sometimes go blurry,” she said. “Some nights I’ve got to get away from the computer because my eyes just see double. It’s a lot of work, a lot of work. But I do it for the pleasure of helping people.”