When Charmaine Haugen complained to a friend about the cost of tax filing service, she recommended Haugen try the VITA program. It offers free filing services to anyone earning less than $51,000 per year.
Haugen, a substitute teacher and education student at Sante Fe Community College, was more satisfied with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program than the private accountant she previously used.
“After they did my taxes, I wanted to call up and say ‘Is there any way I could amend my taxes from two years ago?’” she said.
The VITA program is sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service. The national program is staffed by local volunteers, who help qualifying people fill out their tax forms. The local initiative is run by the United Way of North Central Florida.
The United Way of North Central Florida has been partnered with VITA since 2010. Last year, the United Way of North Central Florida filed 1,293 tax returns, resulting in more than $1,000,000 in refunds.
This year, the United Way of North Central Florida is operating more than 17 sites across Alachua, Bradford, Dixie, Gilchrist, Levy and Union counties, said Sarah Coulson, United Way of North Central Florida communication specialist.
With the volunteers’ help, people apply for tax credits such as earned income tax credit, the only fully refundable credit. Less than 60 percent of the people who qualify actually benefit from it.
One of VITA’s goals is to increase that number, said Michael Gutter, who coordinates the program in IFAS extension offices.
“We really want to make sure that low-income families can take care of taxes without any predatory services,” Gutter, an associate professor of family financial management at the University of Florida, said. “There wasn’t enough outreach to low-income people. They didn’t even know the tax breaks existed.”
Most traffic comes at the beginning of tax season, Gutter said, when families struggling to make ends meet “come in waves” to file for their refunds as soon as possible. There is also a rush of people in the final week who have put the paperwork off.
This year, a total of 90 volunteers are stationed throughout the six counties. There are 42 volunteers from UF’s financial planning, law and business schools and 48 with the United Way of North Central Florida. All volunteers receive IRS training and spend four hours per week with the program for the five weeks of tax season. They don’t hesitate to call the IRS if they have questions, Haugen said.
“I told all my friends, ‘You need to go to VITA. They are absolutely the best people I have ever worked with when doing my taxes,’” she said.
Anyone can call the 2-1-1 hotline and learn where the closest VITA station is located and what to bring. The services are available either in person or online.
The online filing service is for people earning $57,000 or less.