Originally published in the Florida Times-Union
On a quiet Saturday morning in Palatka, RealSense Site Coordinator Steve O’Neal called clients back to his office to check over their paperwork and help them file their taxes. Tax season is busy, of course, but the Putnam County RealSense office is open year-round. Often handling difficult cases, O’Neal passionately resolves challenging tax issues.
“A week after I began volunteering, the site coordinator had to go due to a death in the family,” O’Neal said. What he had anticipated doing a few hours a week became a full-time effort.
It was a good time for O’Neal to focus on doing something that would really take his attention.
“In 2000, an accident shattered my spine,” O’Neal said. “Four years later I had surgery, that’s when I read the article about volunteering with RealSense. I walked into the office using two canes.”
O’Neal said that his mother had brought him the article, knowing it would spark his interest. He’d been helping his family with their taxes since he was 12 and helping her with bookkeeping before that.
“I remember getting the pink booklet in the mail and pouring over it!” O’Neal said, recalling the days when tax forms and booklets were delivered to every household.
While taxes might be an unusual hobby for a 12-year-old, for O’Neal, it was part and parcel of being close to his parents.
He said that his parents had started the Head Start program in Putnam County when he was little. As he grew, his mother followed him, working in the cafeteria offices of his schools as a bookkeeper.
“I would go and help her work on the books,” O’Neal said. “We’d go in at 6:30 and work til 8. Don’t let the books be a penny off!”
Although there was a stint as a psychiatric nurse and time in the military, O’Neal has worked with numbers and taxes most of his life. Now retired, he remains a professional tax preparer. It is a background that comes in handy for the difficult situations that arise such as this year’s IRS rule changes and software glitches with the Affordable Care Act.
There are numerous clients who made good use of his advice and help.
“There was an elderly lady whose husband was in the hospital,” O’Neal said. “She had come in crying. He’d been a truck driver. They hadn’t filed for 11 years, and the IRS was saying they owed $140,000 in back taxes. After six months of gathering information and looking at mileage logs, by the following January we had lowered the amount to $2,500.”
“Remember that the IRS are people with a job to do,” O’Neal said. “Communicate with them; they’re there to help you. You have control but you have to take control. You have to file the taxes.”