Service helps poor with taxes

In a city where 36 percent of the population falls below the federal poverty line, help securing tax refunds can become an important commodity.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assessment program, which helps low-income earners file their taxes and assess their refund options, has already assisted 900 New Haven area residents this tax season — up 19 percent from last year, said Rick Kaiser, board member of the New Haven Economic Security Coalition. Sarah Hunt, site coordinator of the New Haven National Student Partnerships site, said the free help is important for working families in avoiding some of the pitfalls of paid tax assistants, such as the advance refund, a high-interest loan of the amount of the refund.

“We can step in, prepare taxes for free, and have them access what they deserve,” Hunt said.

According to a report issued by Annie E. Casey Family Services in September, 65 percent of all New Haven taxpayers who filed for the Earned Income Tax Credit paid for tax preparation services, ultimately costing them a total of approximately $1.5 million in fees and high-interest refund anticipation loans.

VITA, which has been funded by the Internal Revenue Service since the 1970s, is coordinated and run by volunteers who take an online IRS training course on tax preparation and law.

The New Haven chapter of National Student Partnerships maintains a daily, appointment-based tax clinic staffed by Yale student volunteers, Hunt said. Volunteers commit to four hours per week of tax consultations, Kaiser said. Because the tax season began in late January, the clinics had a total of 81 volunteers, though the number has dropped by more than 30 since.

Although the NSP clinic has remained adequately staffed, Hunt said the broader coalition of VITA sites has faced an increasing demand for tax preparation services this year.

Though most of VITA’s efforts focus on the EITC refund and other federal-level low-income credits, volunteers are available to assist other residents with questions.

“We primarily address just the EITC, but if someone is overqualified, we still try to help them out,” said Tom Ficklin, a VITA volunteer who also serves as chief information officer of Empower New Haven, a government-funded community development organization.

The Connecticut Department of Revenue and the IRS also provide tax assistance for the elderly through the Tax Counseling for the Elderly program, said Department of Revenue Communications Director Sarah Kaufman. TCE, which operates in conjunction with VITA, offers free help to any individual over the age of 60, regardless of his or her income.

The New Haven Economic Security Coalition also sponsors financial literacy courses for low-income residents throughout the year, including seminars on budgeting, credit, home ownership and banking. The courses, Kaiser said, are a component of the council’s mission to help stabilize wealth among low-wage earners.

City officials have scheduled a tax workshop at City Hall Tuesday to educate disabled tax filers about the medical deductions and disability credits available to them.

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