Yale alum heading city’s tax assistance program

There’s a lot of money to be had from the government, and Rob Smuts ’01 wants New Haven residents to know about it.

Smuts, a policy analysis assistant to Mayor John DeStefano Jr., is heading a program to ensure that the city’s taxpayers use thousands of dollars of unclaimed earned income tax credits, or EITCs.

“A lot of people don’t do this is because it’s part of the taxes and they get nervous, or they don’t like to fill out more forms,” Smuts said.

Smuts and other members of DeStefano’s administration hope that with this year’s launch of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, eligible taxpayers in New Haven will take advantage of the federal EITC program. VITA will offer free tax assistance, provided by volunteer certified public accountants or others with accounting experience.

“A lot of people do not know about it, particularly people with language barriers,” Smuts said.

Last year, about 44,380 tax returns were filed in the city. Of those, 9,926 — approximately 22 percent — claimed an EITC. The payment ranges up to $4,000 and varies based on hours worked, total income and number of dependents.

Among those in the New Haven area who received the credit, the average person received about $1,500.

“The qualifications cover a fairly wide number of people, and it’s a pretty substantial amount,” Smuts said.

The goal of the tax credit is to provide an income supplement for the working class, particularly those with dependents. Locally, officials said, the goal of the VITA program is simply to get the word out through widespread publicity — everything from sending notices written in English and Spanish home with public school students to having local clergymen make announcements about VITA to their congregants.

Yale employee Sandra Atkins, who works as a service assistant in Pierson College, said she has taken advantage of the program for as long as she can remember and would encourage others to take it as well, if they are qualified.

“It’s a really good program,” Atkins said. “Say they normally take out $1,000 in regular taxes, but you file for the EITC. You can then get an additional $1,500 credit toward what you have to pay the government. It’s definitely, definitely worth it.”

City officials estimate that there are over 1,000 additional taxpayers who are eligible for the credit but do not know about it. These are precisely the people the outreach program is targeting.

“$1,500 to 1,200 people would be a substantial benefit, not only to them, but to our economy,” Smuts said.

Those who have qualified for the credit but have never claimed it can file for up to three years’ worth of retroactive payments.

“The beautiful thing is, someone who’s eligible for the maximum credit — who has two children and has maybe just been really struggling to get by — and never filed, could receive somewhere around $11,000 from IRS,” Smuts said.

A recent Yale graduate and former president of the Yale College Democrats, Smuts cited his interest in on-campus politics during his years at Yale as the main factor that led to his involvement in New Haven politics, and ultimately his decision to remain in the city after graduation.

“At about the end of my sophomore year, I really came to love New Haven beyond just Yale,” Smuts said. “It’s exactly the right size for really becoming involved; large enough to be interesting and have amazing opportunities but small enough to feel you have an impact in what you do.”

Smuts said the inauguration of the VITA program this year is only a springboard for years to come. The city plans to set up a hotline, recruit more volunteers — including college students — and eventually extend the program beyond promoting the EITC.

“We’re going to go all out,” Smuts said. “We want to develop a very comprehensive outreach program to help people work their way to more secure financial footing.”

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