Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA)

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November 12, 2017

Volunteer tax preparers needed, no experience necessary

By ANDREA PRAEGITZER

Email: Apraegitzer@sun-herald.com.

STAFF WRITER, Charlotte Sun

A program through the United Way of Charlotte County kept hundreds of financially strapped people from losing money the government owed them last year.

Instead of charging upward of $200 or more for tax preparation service help, volunteers through the local United Way processed more than 350 tax returns for limited-income people — for free.

That meant about $100,000 was kept by people who needed it, according to Steve Vito, a United Way Board Member and Southwest Florida regional president of SunTrust Bank.

“We had a great year last year,” he said, noting overall tax refunds for those returns totaled about $343,000.

But there is something keeping the program from helping even more people.

Another site?

The only thing holding the program back from expanding to a third site and growing its impact even more, is the number of volunteers, said Vito.

The IRS-certified program called VITA — Volunteer Income Tax Assistance — has only grown in Charlotte County since it started in 2013 with just one site, when Vito began coordinating it. There is a site at the United Way office in Murdock and last year an additional site opened through a partnership with Lemon Bay High School in Englewood.

Then, the number of people served increased by about 48 percent. They spanned an age spectrum — from 19 to 81 years old — and had an average adjusted gross income of $22,500. The average age was 56, according to information from Vito.

Vito said he is hoping for around 60 to 65 volunteers this year, and if that is achieved a third site could open. That would be about 20 more volunteers than last year.

Eligibility for help this year hinges on an adjusted gross household income of less than $60,000.

Sometimes people just want volunteer preparers to double check their filing to make sure it looks alright. And, some individuals who are not required to file still come in for assistance because they feel it is their patriotic duty to file, according to Vito.

Last year, for example, there were hospital workers, teachers, small business owners, police officers, retirees and more, who qualified for help and kept more of their money in their households. Nearly half qualified for earnedincome tax credits, which typically applies to low to moderate-income, working people with children.

The demand for this tax help permeates the community, according to information from the United Way of Charlotte County, which has a mission of eliminating poverty.

About 40 percent of residents in the county are living month-tomonth, paycheck to paycheck, according to information from the nonprofit organization.

They are deemed Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, or ALICE.

Help and hugs

United Way Suncoast, serving Sarasota County, also offers free tax preparation services. And, another nonprofit, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) assists

with no-cost tax aide for people in Charlotte County.

“When AARP folks get really overwhelmed they will refer people to us,” said volunteer preparer and United Way Board Member Harvey Goldberg. “They are exposing themselves to a total stranger, opening their financial closet, if you will.”

But the work done by the trained volunteers is done with privacy, security and respect, said Goldberg.

And, when it’s all over “we get hugs, handshakes and sometimes tears,” said Goldberg. “That’s what warms the heart.”

A study last year published by Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, suggested income tax preparation chains “target lowincome filers,” according to a write-up out of Johns Hopkins University. The study was co-authored by a program director at the university and found some costs to file a single return for low-income people was over $500.

United Way of Charlotte County Interim Executive Director Angie Matthiessen explained as more free tax service is provided, less people will be charged extreme amounts of money for it.

She also noted there have been tax preparers who sent customers to the VITA program rather than charging them.

“We really want to focus more on that kind of collaboration between accountants and tax preparers and less on those who might take advantage,” said Matthiessen. “The folks in our community who are working paycheck to paycheck are those who are working really hard and deserve the chance to get their taxes done in just as a professional manner as the person who can pay for tax preparation services.”

The United Way of Charlotte county also provided funds to 19 nonprofit agencies last fiscal year. That involved 27,730 clients who were served, and hours of volunteer work valued at almost $2.6 million.

But the VITA program is the only direct service provided by the United Way of Charlotte County, and it served 352 clients with volunteer hours estimated at a value of over $66,000, according to information from Matthiessen.

“We rank all of these services equally,” said Matthiessen, As far as volunteers, no experience in tax preparation is required. In fact most of the local volunteers do not have that kind of background at all, according to Vito.

Volunteer preparers usually work one night a week for a few hours, for about 10 weeks after they are trained. Volunteer greeters are also needed, who help clients organize paperwork and assist with intake questionnaires, said Vito.

Aside from volunteers, the program also relies on sponsorships, including ones from SunTrust Bank, and last year from Fifth Third Bank.

Matthiessen said they are looking right now for both sponsors and volunteers.

The perception is it’s hard, but Vito said, “the software does the heavy lifting.”

An informational session and reception is scheduled for Dec. 5 for prospective volunteers. For more information call 941-627-3539, or email admin@unitedwayccfl.org