Got any tax-related issues you are unable to resolve on your own? The students running the Rijnmond Area Belastingwinkel (‘Tax Shop’) will be able to help you. They have an office hour in the Spijkenisse Municipal Library every Thursday evening. EM attended one such office hour.

Pensioner Marjolein de Leeuw is sitting at a table. She is wearing Chanel glasses in her red hair. She spreads a pile of papers across the table. “When I was doing my tax return at home, I just couldn’t figure it out. I just moved house, and the program of the Tax and Customs Administration just didn’t get that.”

Across the table from her are two students in front of a laptop: Jasvir Singh (silver bracelet, denim jacket, hair pulled back tightly) and Tanja van de Klundert (long blonde hair, small-heart-print blouse). Tanja reassures the lady. “Never mind, we will take our time going over it with you.” For his part, Jasvir asks: “Do you already have a cup of coffee?”

No service without appointment

It is just past 5 o’clock. Every Thursday between 5 and 8pm, students hold an office hour for people who require a little help with their tax affairs. People who need some help, say, filing their tax returns or applying for an allowance, or who could do with some general tips on how to manage their money. The large room in the Spijkenisse Library, which normally houses the Spijkenisse Chess Club, is already filling up.

Around this time of year, things tend to get very busy, because tax returns are due. There are hardly ever fewer than five people seated at the coffee table, which serves as a waiting room today. “The first couple of evenings at the end of February did not attract that many people. But in March and April we can’t skip a single Thursday,” Jasvir explains. Tonight there are so many people that those without an appointment will not be served. A lady who shows up with her mother without a scheduled appointment is forced to leave without having spoken to anyone.

Jasvir Singh en Tanja van de Klundert helpen mevrouw de Leeuw. Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

Mainly elderly and less affluent people

Last year a total of 250 people dropped in on Belastingwinkel for advice. The students expect to see even more people this year. They have noticed that Belastingwinkel mainly attracts pensioners and people who do not have an awful lot of money. Says Jasvir: “Let’s put it this way: these are not the kind of people who earn six figures a year and park a Porsche in front of the shop.” Tanja – who is also on Belastingwinkel’s board – confirms this. “It is mainly elderly people and less affluent people who come in for our free consultation. They often do not understand how to operate the computer system of the Tax and Customs Administration.”

‘It is fun to apply the things you learn in lectures to practical situations’

Tanja van de Klundert

74-year-old Klaas de Jong is one of the people at the coffee table, waiting for his turn. He found his way here due to an advertisement in a local paper. He fingers his thin gold necklace and runs his hand through his greying hair. Why is he here? “When you fill out such forms online, you’re never sure you’re doing it correctly. Besides, I think it is great for these students. It helps them learn a thing or two.”

Tonight, there are six students from Erasmus University (fiscal law and fiscal economics), out of a total of thirty volunteers. Tanja enthusiastically explains why they are doing this: “These evenings are so educational and it is fun to apply the things you learn in lectures to practical situations. You encounter situations you can take back to lectures with you.”

‘You will often hear impressive stories’

‘You hope you’ll be able to tell them that they will receive 800 euros. But it’s just as likely the other way round.’

Jasvir Singh

Once Jasvir starts talking to a waiting customer, it becomes obvious that the volunteers are providing more than just tax advice in the library’s chess room. A man with a thick Rotterdam accent tells the volunteers that his children are refusing to help him file his tax return due to a family quarrel.

Some people have a story to tell, Jasvir has noticed. Therefore, he really takes his time serving each customer. “You will often hear impressive stories. A few weeks ago a guy showed up, and I had to tell him he had to file a tax return for his deceased wife. We also had someone who had been stuck with the debts racked up by their gambling-addicted husband. When you talk to such people, you hope you’ll be able to tell them that they will receive 800 euros from the Tax and Customs Administration, but it’s just as likely the other way round. In which case it’s up to you to tell them so in the nicest possible way.”

‘When you fill out such forms online, you’re never sure you’re doing it correctly’

Klaas de Jong

For the time being, the students are unable to turn Ms De Leeuw’s story into a number, be it positive or negative. Since she moved house, she temporarily owned two houses, but it is impossible to indicate this in the system of the Tax and Customs Administration. “We learned during a lecture that there is a transition arrangement for this sort of thing,” Tanja muses.

But when Tanja and Jasvir try to complete the online form, they can’t manage it either. Belastingwinkel’s helpline (founder Vincent van Drunen) cannot be reached either, because he is at a lecture. Tanja asks Ms De Leeuw if she is in a position to come back next week. “We will have a solution for you then.” With a smile, she says: “Sometimes problems turn into learning moments for all of us.”

Marjolein de Leeuw’s name was changed at the interviewee’s request.