Free Tax Preparation A Big HelpBy Susan Bush
12:00AM / Saturday, February 18, 2006
North Adams - For dozens of local folks who toil at the moderate to low end of the wage scale, income tax refund checks mean catching up on bills, replacing ailing appliances, or paying for vehicle repairs. Every penny counts, especially if a family is eligible for an Earned Income Credit [EIC], which can greatly increase a refund amount.
|Williams College students Kim Heard and Allison Farley are part of a free VITA tax preparation team working at the Northern Berkshire Community Action office.|
Completing the necessary tax forms and crunching a myriad of numbers correctly can be an intimidating process, and mistakes can generate costly penalties and fees. Professional help may be a solution, but the $50, $60, $70, or even higher cost of professional income tax preparation can siphon needed revenues away from a refund check.
Seeking a "rapid refund" may significantly erode a refund, and families may find that the service is far from a bargain.
For Some, VITA is Vital
Williams College students and the Northern Berkshire Community Action office have collaborated with the Internal Revenue Service-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program to offer a free income tax preparation and filing service to those who fall into the low to moderate income bracket.
The service is necessary and appreciated, according to "Isabelle," who was at the NBCA office on Feb. 16 for tax return preparation.
"Isabelle" said that she has always been intimidated by the paperwork, forms, and math associated with income tax returns.
"I used to have a family member do my taxes but then I moved away," she said. "My supervisor at work told me about this service, and told me that it was free. I've had friends who have had their taxes done, and the fees could be pretty high. For a lot of working people, that hurts. This way, people get the full refund returned to them."
Tax returns are prepared at the NBCA 85 Main St. office. Appointments may be made for specific weekdays and Saturdays, and dates are open right up to and including April 15, which is the final day for filing tax returns. E-filing is available, and can generate a tax refund check in 10-14 days in most cases.
"It's Friendly, It's Fast"
The trained students have been busy; on Feb.11, about 10 returns were prepared and e-filed and today [Feb. 18] another 10 returns are expected to be completed and filed. Several people had appointments for the service on Feb. 16.
VITA Site Adminsitrator Paula Consolini at work on Feb. 16.
Marie Harpin is the Northern Berkshire action center's area director. The VITA program offers benefits to the volunteer tax preparers and the folks utilizing the service, she said.
"It's a wonderful service that the students provide," she said. "It's friendly, it's fast, and the folks get all their money back. No one has to pay a fee or a percentage of the EIC."
Williams College Coordinator of Experiential Learning Paula Consolini is the VITA site administrator. Consolini works well with the students and the public, Harpin said.
"Paula is a great supervisor," she said. "I think that this work is a great lesson for the students."
Happy to Help
College seniors Kim Heard of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Allison Farley of Montclair, N.J. are among the students serving on the volunteer tax team.
Heard said that most of the people she encounters are eligible for an EIC benefit, and she is happy to help them file the forms necessary to receive the tax credit.
"It's really rewarding to be helping the community," she said.
Farley said that she believes the VITA program is vital to families.
"I think it's important," she said. "We [volunteers] can share our general knowledge and the program doesn't cost anything. I've heard of people paying a lot to get taxes done."
Farley and Heard volunteered with the program during 2005. Students complete 25 to 30 hours of training to become certified for the program, and the volunteers are required to re-certify yearly.
The local program was introduced as a pilot project in 2005 and was offered during March and April; its' success led Harpin to arrange for VITA services from January through April this year.
The student volunteers gain perspective by seeing first-hand how a government-driven initiative, the EIC, impacts families, Consolini said.
"The great thing is that the students have taken this course and they learn about tax preparation," she said. "They learn about policy, how, with the EIC, a policy is implemented and how it works on the ground."
Employers are getting the word out about the service, Consolini said.
"We think it is great when the employers tell their employees about the service and get the word out," she said.
Getting What's Coming To Them
IRS Tax Specialist Michael De Simone oversees the VITA offices operating in parts of New England. De Simone was at the NBCA office on Feb. 16. VITA is a federally-funded program that has been in operation for three decades, he said.
The program is focused on those whose yearly gross income is at $38,000 or under, De Simone said. Those who fall into that income bracket may be eligible for the EIC, especially those who have children. One VITA goal is increasing awareness of the EIC and encouraging those who qualify to seek and receive the tax credit, he said.
"We want people who are eligible for the benefit to get it," he said.
Certain items are required for VITA participation. Participants must bring a photo identification card, Social Security cards for themselves, spouses, and any dependents, wage statements, such as W-2, W-2G, or 1099-R forms supplied by employers, any interest and dividend statements from financial institutions [Form 1099], a copy of last year's federal and state tax return if available, bank routing and account numbers for direct deposit, and other relevant information such as the total amount paid for day care and the identification number of the child care provider. Jointly filed tax returns require the signature of both spouses.
VITA appointments may be arranged by calling Marie Harpin at the NBCA at 413-663-3014.
Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or at 802-823-9367.