Free Tax Help Offered

No one likes paying taxes. And almost as bad is figuring them out.

Plowing through all those IRS forms and regulations can be particularly tough for folks without accountants or access to other help.

Fortunately — in conjunction with AARP and the IRS — Westport’s Department of Human Services provides a free, full-service tax assistance program. Special attention is paid to senior citizens, and low to moderate income households. (It is available to all filers, regardless of income or age.)

Tax preparation and electronic filing of federal and state taxes is offered from January 27 (early) through April 15 (really, really late) at 2 locations.

The Senior Center program runs Wednesdays (9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) and Thursdays (1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.). Call 203-341-5099 for appointments.

The Town Hall program runs Mondays, from 1:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Call 203-341-1050 for appointments.

Nationwide, more than 35,000 IRS-certified volunteers help out, at nearly 5,000 sites. Last year, 748 returns were filed in Westport.

Tax forms can be daunting for anyone.

If married, both spouses should be present at the appointment. Taxpayers must bring:

  • Copy of last year’s federal and state tax returns
  • Government-issued photo ID
  • Social Security or ITIN numbers for all taxpayers and dependents
  • Bank account/routing numbers (blank check preferred) if expecting a refun
  • SSA1099 if you were paid Social Security benefits
  • W-2s from employers
  • W-2G from gambling winnings
  • 1099G from unemployment compensation payments
  • 1099s: bank interest, stock dividends, retirement distributions, broker statements
  • Receipts for deductible expenses, including real estate and vehicle taxes paid
  • Verification of the original purchase price of sold assets (home, stocks, etc.)
  • Receipts/canceled checks if itemizing deductions (charitable contributions, etc.)
  • Form 1095-A if health insurance was from the Access Health Connecticut Marketplace.

For more information, call the Department of Human Services: 203-341-1050.

NOTE: The “tax assistance program” refers to helping figure out your taxes — not actually paying them. Damn!

Pic Of The Day #1005

Saugatuck River fisherman, behind the Willows medical complex (Photo/Danny Cohen)

Friday Flashback #176

The Post Road sure has changed in the century or so since this photo was taken.

Yet 100 years or so later, much of it still looks familiar.

Click on or hover over to enlarge.

In this west-looking view — provided by alert reader/amateur historian Mary Gai — we see the road median, beginning about where the new retail/ residential/office complex is at the foot of Long Lots Road.

Further along on the right is the current site of New Country Toyota, and other buildings that still remain.

At the crest of the hill, on the south (left) is Sakura’s predecessor. Cumberland Farms, Calise’s, a lumber store, small shopping center, Citgo and more have taken over the rest of that side — but the topography is the same. It’s easy to visualize what the Post Road (State Street/US 1) looked like then.

It’s much harder to imagine the almost total lack of traffic.

Staples Students Plan Afternoon Of Gun Violence Awareness

The Parkland massacre 2 years ago — and a subsequent assault rifle scare at their own school — affected, then galvanized many Staples High students.

Elana Atlas was just a freshman. But she organized a national letter-writing campaign to legislators, and created a website — Action Against Gun Violence — filled with background information on school shootings; texts sent by terrified students in the midst of gunfire; counter-arguments to the “right to bear arms” clause; links to gun safety organizations; advice on how to start your own movement — and of course, her letter templates.

Elana Atlas, at work 2 years ago.

Two years later, the epidemic continues unabated. But — rather than being discouraged, or overwhelmed by the pressures of being a Staples junior — Elana is committed more than ever to doing what she can to making America’s schools and streets safe for everyone.

In the aftermath of Parkland, she joined fellow Stapleites Audrey Bernstein, Ruby Coleman, Kaela Dockray, Brooke Kessler, Peri Kessler and Eliza Oren in creating a local high school chapter of Students Demand Action. That’s the national organization — affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety — fighting for common sense gun reform and usage.

Now, Elana has helped turned it into an official Staples High School club.

She’s sparked a number of intriguing projects. The group is working on an open letter to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader who has stalled most gun legislation in that chamber. They’re coordinating with student groups around the country — especially in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky — to get viral social media attention.

Staples’ Students Demand Action and the Westport/Fairfield Moms Demand Action chapter presented a panel on gun violence in schools. Elana was one of the speakers.

Next month, and again in June, the students will commemorate Parkland.

Right now, they’re gearing up for their biggest event yet. On Friday, January 24 (3 p.m., Toquet Hall), Students Demand Action sponsors “An Afternoon of Gun Prevention and Activism.”

Toquet will hum with activities. There will be information about local, state and national legislators’ stands on gun laws; signmaking (with photos, to post on social media); voter registration, and speakers, including lawmakers, studens, and Tara Donnelly Gottlieb, whose parents were killed in 2005 during a robbery of their Fairfield jewelry store.

The goal, Elana says, is to show that the Westport gun violence movement remains strong — and help people get involved.

In 2018, Staples High School students stood in the courtyard to demand action on gun violence. They’re still going strong. (Photo/Ali Feder)

“An Afternoon of Gun Prevention and Activism” is open to all. Elana hopes many high school students will attend, and that parents will bring their children too.

“It will be uplifting — not gory,” she promises.

And very, very important.

(Pre-registration is not mandatory, but it helps for planning numbers. Click here to pre-register.)

Pic Of The Day #1004

Sunset over Saugatuck (Photo/Tracy Porosoff)

Sing Your (A Cappella) Songs!

In 2016, Danielle Merlis created Westport’s first cello camp.

Danielle Merlis

The award-winning musician — who was initially inspired at Long Lots Elementary School, earned first chair honors in the Staples High orchestra, and went on to perform with Chris Brubeck and the Eagles, at venues like Lincoln Center — wanted to give back to the community that gave her so much.

It was an instant success.

Three years ago, she added a summer a cappella camp. It includes vocal technique, beatboxing, ensemble skills and choreography.

Now there’s a winter and spring workshop too.

Starting February 2 and running through April 26 at the United Methodist Church, the camp — for students in grades 4 to 12 — will help them “shake off daily school stress and experience the joy of singing with friends,” Merlis says.

Each week will include a cappella ensemble coaching, beat-boxing masterclasses, vocal improvisation, solo technique and choreography. It ends with a final concert for friends and family.

Typical performances include A-ha’s “Take on Me,” Pentatonix’s “Take Me Home,” “Kendrick/Timberlake’s “True Colors” and One Republic’s “I Did.”

All vocal skill levels and ranges are welcome. Merlis believe that singing should be fun, so she promotes a “supportive, positive, non-competitive” atmosphere.

Sounds good to me!

(For more information on Camp A Cappella, click here.)

MLK Celebration Shines Light On Voter Suppression

Carol Anderson teaches African American studies at Emory University. She is one of America’s foremost experts on voter suppression.

Anderson’s research has identified suppression that, she says, could have reversed results in key states during the 2016 presidential election. She also studies voter disinformation (election meddling), and the disenfranchisement of black women voters from the suffrage movement through the 1960s.

Anderson’s latest book is  One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy.

Dr. Carol Anderson

All of which makes her an excellent choice to deliver the keynote address at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. It’s set for Sunday, January 19 (3 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse), with an audience Q-and-A, reception and book signing to follow.

The event also includes performances by award-winning opera soprano Helena Brown, and students from Trumbull’s Regional Center for the Arts.

The importance of voter suppression — as we hurtle toward the 2020 presidential election, and voter registration lawsuits plod through the courts — is why, in addition to the usual MLK Day sponsors (TEAM Westport, the Westport Weston Interfaith Council, Westport Library and Playhouse), Anderson’s appearance draws strong support from the Westport League of Women Voters, and Westport’s 1919 Committee.

That’s a group of library staff and volunteers who have planned events throughout the year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

One Person, No Vote is included in the Westport Library’s 2019–20 WestportREADS program, which celebrates that centennial.

The MLK Celebration on January 19 is free. However, tickets are required. Click here to register.

Pic Of The Day #1003

Bridge between Earthplace and Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum (Photo/Michael Tomashefsky)

Unsung Heroes #131

The other day, Saugatuck Rowing Club marketing director Diana Kuen noticed there are a lot of kids in the youth program — but very few teachers.

She figured one reason might be cost.

That’s an easy solve. So now the Riverside Avenue facility — which includes a state-of-the-art fitness center — offers half-price off memberships.

But Kuen did not stop there. She realized there are other town employees to honor too. So the Saugatuck Rowing Club offer is extended to Westport police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders.

Best of all: This is not a one-shot, take-advantage-of-the-January-slump kind of deal. It’s good all the time, all year long.

The Saugatuck Rowing Club wins plenty of trophies on the water. Now they’re winners on land too.

Saugatuck Rowing Club (Drone photo/Ward French)

Erasing History?

I did not think I’d be posting another story on the Westport Museum for History & Culture’s decision to replace the name of the Sheffer Gallery (honoring a family with a long history of philanthropy and volunteerism) with that of Daniel Offutt (whose trust recently gave a large gift).

However, a number of “06880” readers remarked on the irony of a “historical society” turning its back on history.

Now, it appears the exhibition space is not the only place they’re doing that.

For years, the website (interestingly, it’s www.westporthistory.org) included information about many previous exhibits. One reader — who recalls that it went back to 2000 or so — found the descriptions and photos very useful when he was pitching his own exhibit idea, and again in the planning stages once it was accepted.

Now, the “Exhibits” page shows only 3. All were mounted under the current executive director and her staff.

In addition, the “Media” tab shows articles only since December 27, 2017. That one — the oldest — is headlined “Historical Society Names New Executive Director.”

The Westport Historical Society received excellent press coverage over many years. You wouldn’t know it, though, by looking at the website. That history is gone.

Also gone: a list of advisory council members. It was there Tuesday.

In addition, the list of board members on the same page was substantially shorter than the day before.

Yesterday, what appeared to be a link to the advisory council was no longer working. Like the organization’s history prior to 2018, the advisory council too is now invisible.

NOTE: Some readers have wondered why they have not heard the Westport Museum’s side of the story. No one has responded to the Comments section in an official — or even unofficial — capacity. And not a single staff member has contacted me, on or off the record.