For residents, tax help is priceless

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, a fine but impervious layer of snow had covered the streets surrounding the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center. The white outline of the buiding began disappearing into the white streets, while the tires of a Honda Accord slid and turned out of the parking lot.

Henrietta Salters, a middle-aged New Haven resident, had endured the taxing trek, arriving an hour ahead of her appointment with her necessary documents tidily tucked into her faux-crocodile purse. She had arrived there seeking support in filing her taxes for the 2009 season. It was a task characterized by piles of papers and receipts — a task too difficult to tackle without the help of the New Haven Economic Security Coalition, she said.

Currently in its seventh season, the NHSEC had sponsored a session, though its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, for local residents to work one-on-one with a volunteer well-versed in the details of tax preparation. The NHSEC’s VITA program is part of a national effort overseen by the IRS to provide low-income wage earners with free tax preparation support. It is one of two VITA programs in the City of New Haven, the other being run by a similar organization called New Life.

Jerry Wei ’10, one of the more than 40 volunteers with the VITA program, called the program an integral service to New Haven residents. He said he began volunteering with VITA in Santa Barbara as a sophomore in high school, for admittance into an economics class. But filing taxes, he said, has been more than just a class prerequisite.

“It’s a really important program for the community,” Wei said. “With every tax return we file, residents get $1,000 to $7,000 back. It leaves a very big impact on the New Haven.”

He added: “Plus, you get to learn how to do your taxes.”

Salters’ income tax return was among hundreds filed through the NHESC’s VITA program last year. Figures for 2006 show that 774 tax returns were filed, garnering almost $2 million in tax relief for city residents who needed it most.

“I’m just grateful the program is here,” Salters said. “[The volunteers] were very helpful and friendly,” she added, “they answered all of my questions, and my taxes arrived seven to 14 days after I met with them. It’s just a really convenient program, and they’ll work with you around your schedule.”

This was Salters’ second time using the program; she first participated last year, after seeing an advertisement for VITA in a community paper. Since her first encouraging experience, Salters said she has recommended the program to her friends and family members, all of whom who have also started using VITA.

“It’s really helping the community a lot,” Salters said. “It’s really hard to have to pay over $100 to get taxes done, especially for people who are getting just a thousand or two back on their returns.”

When asked what she’ll do with the $100 she’ll be saving, she responded, “Paying a bill.”

The program has been well-received not only by residents who need filing assistance, but also by neighborhood volunteers.

Stacey Demento ’11 began volunteering with the group this year after taking an online certification course offered by the IRS, which she described as “a rather involved tutorial.” She said anyone can sign up to be a volunteer, no questions asked.

“I took the basic course, but others can take additional advanced tutorials to learn about more complex tax scenarios,” Demento, an engineering and applied sciences major, wrote in an e-mail.

The taxpayer comes in for his appointment with necessary materials — ID, Social Security card, tax forms, etc. — and fills out an initial questionnaire to determine how the taxes will be filed. Volunteers take care of the rest, she said.

Rachel Chen ’11, a member of the NHSEC-participant National Student Partnerships, said she sees VITA as “not just a tax program.”

“VITA acts as a portal for clients who can then receive services from other programs offered by the New Haven Economic Security Coalition,” she said. “It’s a really important part of getting people to everything else available to them.”

The VITA program, which began offering filing assistance for the 2009 tax season two weeks ago, will be holding sessions throughout New Haven until April 13.

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