Andrew Ballard

Mayor Toni Harp held a press conference last Tuesday to remind residents of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, an annual service that helps low-income families complete tax forms accurately and on-time, free of charge.

The program is a partnership between the federal Internal Revenue Service and the Connecticut Association for Human Services, a nonprofit organization based in Hartford. There are 20 sites in Connecticut, 15 of which are located in New Haven, at which IRS-certified volunteers help eligible families file taxes and maximize their returns by screening clients for special tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.  Harp reminded residents of the program last Tuesday so that they could begin to file their taxes with VITA’s services before the April 15 deadline.

“New Haven’s VITA coalition members are united in a desire to help working families comply with tax-filing deadlines and do so accurately,” Harp said in a release. “Beyond that, the volunteer nature of this group ensures that working families are compliant without having to pay high tax-preparation fees.”

Last year, the program yielded $7.4 million in federal refunds and credits, said Jim Horan, the chief executive officer of CAHS.

Horan added that last year, over 400 VITA volunteers working at 15 sites filed 4,677 returns that yielded an average return of $1,911 per client. Families that make less than $54,000 a year qualify for assistance, but the average client income is $24,000. Persons with disabilities or limited English are eligible as well.

Rick Kaiser of the New Haven Community Services Administration estimated that similar tax preparation and guidance services cost an average of $270.

“The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program and the Earned Income Tax Credit help people move out of poverty,” Horan said. “That’s why my anti-poverty organization loves it.”

VITA also offers programs that encourage people to split part of a refund into a savings account and open a starter individual retirement account, taking advantage of federal programs that partially match retirement accounts. VITA volunteers also check credit scores and offer financial education classes.

Families can make appointments or walk into most of the sites, each of which has different hours to accommodate families without flexible work hours. Most of the sites are located in schools and churches and other neighborhood centers. The largest site in Connecticut is at the New Haven Free Public Library, a location administered by Yale students affiliated with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project.

Ben Wong ’19, a site coordinator at the library, said he began to volunteer with VITA to connect with the community.

“I thought free tax preparation was a unique and under-appreciated service that would allow me to kill two birds with one stone, give back to the New Haven community in a meaningful way and learn how to do my own taxes,” he said.

Each spring, students are certified to teach tax fundamentals and begin offering their services the following fall.

Though local governments and community organizations primarily organize VITA services, the federal IRS screens each site and provides some funding for the program. Most of the funding comes from the IRS and Wells Fargo, with the national nonprofit United Way funding some sites.

“We appreciate the partnership with the organizations that host the tax sites — we have schools, churches, and colleges and community organizations and libraries,” said Lucille Vaughan, the VITA coordinator at CAHS. “We really appreciate their help and support.”

Though it is now more than halfway through the tax season, Vaughn said volunteers are always wanted. Anyone can be a volunteer after completing an online course provided by the IRS.

VITA is not the only finance and tax assistance program open to low-income citizens in New Haven. The Financial Empowerment Center, launched by Harp, is open year-round to help residents learn about banking and credit options, though it does not offer tax preparation, city spokesman Lawrence Grotheer said.

Right now, VITA is a stand-alone program, but Horan and other community government and nonprofit leaders are trying to better integrate it with New Haven programs like the Financial Empowerment Center, he said.

The Financial Empowerment Center is located on 316 Dixwell Ave.