United Way to aid seniors, others with income tax prep

MIDDLEBURY — The federal Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program in association with local agencies is extending a lifeline to local citizens in need of help filing their taxes.
“The economy is starting to take a toll on folks with limited income,” said Kate McGowan, co-executive director of the United Way of Addison County. “For some of our residents to pay for tax preparation when they can’t pay the rent is a big problem, so we’re looking forward in this expanded capacity to meet the needs of our lower- and moderate-income residents regardless of age.”
The Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), United Way of Addison County and Internal Revenue Service are once again offering the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Free Tax Aide Program this year. The program, in which IRS-certified volunteers help prepare state and federal tax returns, is focused on low- and middle-income residents of Addison County, paying special attention to those over the age of 60.
The AARP Free Tax Aide Program began last Wednesday, Feb. 3, and will run through April 13. The program, held on Mondays and Fridays at the United Way at 48 Court St., Middlebury, is expanding this year to offer the service on Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes.
“By expanding available sites, we hope to increase access,” said McGowan. “We will also continue offering the service at work sites, which is great because people can go on their breaks.”
The United Way is also expanding the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, known as VITA, by helping to launch a Fast Tax program open to all eligible residents in need. Franklin, Grand Isle, Chittenden, Addison and Bennington counties are participating this year.
“The new program involves self-preparation,” said McGowan. “A consortium of tax software companies said they would allow people to use their software for free if they met certain criteria.”
The software — similar to Turbo Tax — will be installed on computers in four local locations in the coming weeks, including Bixby Memorial Library, John V. Craven Community Services Center (282 Boardman St. in Middlebury), Lincoln Library and the United Way of Addison County. The program will run through April 15.
“The traditional VITA program with well-trained preparers requires two volunteers per return and is very labor intensive,” said McGowan. “But there are some people who can do it themselves. So rather than using our limited resource of volunteers, this is a great landing site. For any young families who grew up around computers, it’s a good fit.”
The Free Tax Aide Program has been running strong for over a decade, with the United Way getting involved three years ago.
“Last year, we provided 287 people from Addison County with tax preparation services for free,” said Serena Eddy, program coordinator for RSVP and the Volunteer Center of the United Way. “Our volunteers take a weeklong AARP-sponsored course to prepare them.”
Eddy said the four main volunteers last year gave more than 500 hours of time to help prepare taxes.
“They (the volunteers) are just very intelligent, dedicated, caring people who want to help the community,” she said.
Tom Spencer, a Ferrisburgh resident, has volunteered for the last six years and is one of the main Free Tax Aide volunteers.
“When I retired six years ago, I was looking for some place to volunteer and I felt like this was something I could do,” said the former businessman. “I helped out a little the first year, and then got more and more involved.”
Spencer spent around 25 hours a week volunteering last year, but with the program’s expansion, said he plans to devote more hours this year.
“Personally, I enjoy helping the elderly get things straightened out. There’s a lot of anxiety among clients who can’t figure out how to get their taxes done correctly,” he said. “We get a lot of personal stories and it’s nice to just calm them down and tell them everything is fine and that they’re set for another year.”
Eddy said that the appreciation shown by VITA recipients made all the hard work worth it.
“It’s a wonderful gift to our community to provide this service,” she said. “It’s a winning situation for everyone including the government.”
Through the two VITA programs, McGowan hopes to promote a greater understanding of the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC. The federal benefit program offers a refundable tax credit to workers with low or moderate incomes. But McGowan said EITC is grossly underused.
“It is estimated that one in four people are eligible for EITC — anywhere from $500 to $3,700 back into that family’s budget, which is huge,” she said. “We know that Vermonters are underutilizing this credit and we are trying to get the word out that this credit is available.”
While the Tax Aide Program has seen yearly success, McGowan said Fast Tax is unprecedented.
“It hasn’t been taken up in communities anywhere in the country, so there isn’t a benchmark to go against,” she said. “People will have to benchmark against us next year!”
To make an appointment for the Tax Aide Program, volunteer or find out more information about Fast Tax, call 802-388-7044.
Intern Kyle Finck can be found at [email protected] 

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