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Free Beats Fee Any Day, But Especially April 15

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Some low-wage earners think they've got to part with a good chunk of change to get their refund from the Internal Revenue Service. But an expanded group of city social-service agencies is now offering free tax-filing services to help low-income workers get more back, more quickly.

The coalition, led by South Side-based Just Harvest, will help individual taxpayers who make under $25,000 a year (and families making $35,000) file their returns until April 15.

That could mean a lot to people like Julie Mink, a single mother raising three kids in Verona. In previous years, Mink, a nail technician, paid a local accountant $100 just to file a Form 1040 by mail. One year, her forms were lost, engendering another $25 refiling fee -- and she didn't receive her refund until July.

"I waited, and waited, for the stupid check to come," says Mink. This year, thanks to Just Harvest's electronic filing, Mink shouldn't have to wait more than two weeks: She got her taxes done on the agency's first day of service, Jan. 22.

Although most commercial tax preparers now file electronically too, their service doesn't come cheap, costing an average of $300, says Maryellen Hayden of ACORN, another agency offering the free tax service this year.

Although the program, first launched by Just Harvest in 2003, is gratis for taxpayers, it doesn't come free for the agencies. It is funded by $80,000 in grants from the city and Allegheny County, as well as PathwaysPA and Pittsburgh Community Service Corp., two non-profits that support low-income families' pursuit of economic self-sufficiency.

David Mooney, a retired college librarian from Squirrel Hill, will be helping people file for the second year. Trained in 2004 by the IRS, Mooney still had to pass a test two weeks ago in order to qualify to do taxes again.

What keeps him coming back, he says, is "knowing that I'm providing a good service to people who really need it."

Free tax filing sites: ACORN, 5907 Penn Ave., East Liberty, 412-441-6551; Just Harvest, 16 Terminal Way, South Side, 412-431-8964; NorthShore Community Alliance, 1439 N Franklin St., Manchester, 412-322-7400; 816 Tripoli St., Spring Garden, 412-322-4174; Parental Stress Center, 5877 Commerce St., East Liberty, 412-361-4800; Community Activity Center, 113 N Pacific Ave., Garfield, 412-441-6950; and Monroeville Mall, 412-372-3725

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