Jim Petersen remembers reading a news story about a St. Louis delicatessen that offered its sandwiches for sale on a sliding scale based on income to help its patrons through hard times.
So he has started a tax preparation service on a similar principle.
"I spent $25 for software," the Richland resident said. "I try to recover that. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't."
Petersen and longtime Pasco tax preparer Bill Wilkins are two local businessmen who said that they offer people an alternative to national tax-preparing chains or to trying to file tax returns on their own.
The filing deadline this year is April 18.
Petersen got into the income tax business in 1965. He worked for the Internal Revenue Service in Utah and then in Detroit until 1969.
He went on to work for the U.S. Air Force Accounting and Finance Center in Denver. Then he worked in computers and contract management for a string of Hanford contractors until retiring about 2003.
But a friend asked him to join a branch of a national tax-preparing chain. He worked for its Tri-City branches for six years, retiring again in 2010.
"But when you prepare taxes for people, at least in my case, I become friends with almost everybody," he said.
So, at the request of former customers, he started preparing taxes again from his Richland home this year.
He charges from about $25 to $150, depending on a return's complexity. On average, he charges about $80.
And he said he can show tax filers some tricks they might not find on their own or through tax-preparation software.
For instance, he advised a married man whose wife died last year that he still could file as a married couple for the 2010 tax year and save money.
He can help people claim deductions for the cost of weight management programs or for out-of-pocket expenses connected to volunteer activities.
But although Petersen can help people save money, his biggest reward is less tangible.
"I like to help people," he said simply. "It makes me happy."
To arrange an appointment, call him at 509-554-0431. Clients may meet him at his home or at a library branch, he said.
Pasco businessman Bill Wilkins has been helping people file their taxes for 60 years. He estimates employees at his offices have helped with more than 250,000 tax returns in that time.
He broke into the business after his father bought him a correspondence course just before Wilkins deployed overseas with the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.
He said he first put that knowledge to work when a fellow airman asked Wilkins to prepare his taxes.
"I was pretty broke," he recalled. "I said, 'If you give me five bucks, I'll do it,' " he added with a laugh.
After returning stateside, Wilkins opened his first office in 1956 in West Richland. He then ran offices in Kennewick and then downtown Pasco before opening his present office at 4418 W. Court St.
He believes his was the first Tri-City business to use computers to file tax returns and to advertise his services on TV.
He points to his experience as one advantage he might offer over others.
"There's probably no tax detail I haven't dealt with in those 60 years," he said.
Like Petersen, Wilkins said filers sometimes miss possible tax breaks, even if they use software.
"The problem is, you have to know what you (have to) do to answer the questions they're asking," Wilkins said.
Both Petersen and Wilkins said they also can help people file amended returns for the past three tax years.
"Nine times out of 10," Wilkins said, "we get to file amended returns for them, and they get their refunds on those back years."
Wilkins said he charges a minimum of $75 to prepare someone's taxes and an average customer pays about $150.
He suggested people call his office at 509-547-5525 to arrange an appointment. Walla Walla residents can call a toll-free number, 525-1000.
-- Kathy Korengel: 509-582-1541; email@example.com