VITA celebrates 20 years of providing free tax preparation

The local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) team is providing free tax preparation services for qualified individuals and families for the 20th filing season. Appointments can be made by calling 800-211-5128.

VITA is a collaboration of the Tri County United Way, Moreau Community Center, Washington County Cornell Cooperative Extension and the IRS along with many more partnering agencies in Washington, Warren and Northern Saratoga counties that assist income-eligible local families.

The current team of 34 certified IRS volunteer tax preparers offers appointments in the rural communities including Cambridge, Greenwich, Whitehall, Johnsburg, Lake George and Warrensburg. They also have weekly appointments in Queensbury, Glens Falls, South Glens Falls and Hudson Falls. Daytime and evening appointments are available.

VITA has reached the halfway mark of the 2023 filing season. With only six weeks left, it encourages all to make an appointment soon before they are full.

To qualify for this free service a household’s income must not exceed $60,000, must include no income from rental property, nor have a quantity of stock sales, no self-employment with employees or a business loss.

When you come to the appointment expect to spend about one hour for the interview, tax prep, quality review and printing. VITA requires taxpayers to bring social security documents for everyone listed on their tax return and a photo ID for the taxpayer and spouse who both need to attend the appointment. A copy of the prior year’s tax return can be helpful though not mandatory.

Twenty years ago Barbara Pielo from the SPEC division of the IRS came to Washington County and meet with representatives from Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Economic Opportunity Council (now LEAP), Department of Social Services and the WIC program. She explained how there were millions of dollars from earned income tax credit going unclaimed each year because low-income taxpayers were not filing a tax return to claim it.

It was further explained that those who did know about the credit were not getting all of the funds to help support their family because they were going to a paid tax preparer and taking rapid refund loans, thus losing a large portion to the fees. The IRS was promoting the VITA program to assist these taxpayers in getting every dollar of that valuable tax credit.

The community partners needed to identify potential volunteer tax preparers and tax preparation locations while the IRS would provide the training materials for the volunteers and the tax software program to complete and electronically file the tax returns.

During that first year four volunteers completed the certification course and donated their time to assist 137 taxpayers to electronically file and receive every dollar of their refunds. Two volunteers were business/accounting students at ACC and the other two were volunteers with Washington County Cornell Cooperative Extension. Appointments were held two evenings per week in donated office space at the Head Start Administration office in Hudson Falls and the Head Start Center in Granville.

In the second year the number of returns and team members was almost doubled in Washington County, with seven certified volunteer tax preparers completing 262 tax returns. Warren County Head Start opened a site in Glens Falls that operated one night per week with two or three certified volunteers.

In these early years, each organization took on a specific task, whether it be scheduling appointments, offering space or staff for tax return preparation, marketing, training and so forth.

In meeting the training requirements with limited equipment, VITA reached out to the Hudson Falls School District and BOCES, which both graciously allowed the organization to use computer labs to conduct tax preparer training.

Today, VITA operates two call centers using volunteers. One handles the Washington County site locations, while the other handles the Warren County locations. The Moreau Community Center handles the appointments for its site.

The volunteers are true volunteers, who are not compensated for their time or travel. Without them this VITA program would not be so successful.

Through the years VITA has had a variety of volunteers coming from an assortment of backgrounds. The one thing they all have in common is the desire to help others. They find this volunteer work to be rewarding and educational.

Sixty-five percent of the taxpayers VITA sees each year are returning clients. Most have been coming for several years and have spread the word to their family, friends, and co-workers which makes up about 20% of the new taxpayers each year. The other 15% are referred through a partner agency, see it publicized or find VITA through the IRS website or online source.

VITA tanks all who have volunteered with VITA over the 20 filing seasons and to the many partner agencies who donated space, supplies and/or promoted this free service to their clients and communities.