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January 20, 2004 > Earn It! Keep it! Save it! Because you deserve it! Free Tax Help at the Family R

Earn It! Keep it! Save it! Because you deserve it! Free Tax Help at the Family R

by Reshma Yunus

Earn it! Keep it! Save it! proclaims a national program to increase economic self-sufficiency. The program is sponsored in part by United Way which is also working to coordinate the implementation of the program in all Bay Area counties.

The first significant way that the program assists in self-sufficiency is through the IRS VITA program (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program). This program provides free income tax preparation for people who earned $34,692 or less in 2003 and enables them to obtain a tax refund from the IRS called the earned income tax credit (EITC). Melissa Goodman Elgar, Volunteer Coordinator for United Way, stated that "in 2003, in Alameda County alone, we had $3,000,000 in total tax refunds with an average refund of $1,200 per family with some refunds as high as $4,000."

Ms. Elgar told us of the positive impact these refunds had on families, "people could pursue an education or accumulate money for a down payment on a car or even a house. Each VITA site has its own stories which are all heartwarming and demonstrate that even a small amount (of money) can help in the betterment of someone's living condition," she said.

"In addition," she continued, "the program helps people who may not be financially knowledgeable to learn skills and get information to preserve their assets. For example, many people in this strata of earned income, many not have a bank account, so when they need to cash checks, they have to use a check cashing facility which can charge quite a lot; however, after receiving their refund check with help from VITA, they can now open an account with banks that partner with the coalition and thereafter cash checks for free!"

"It is vital that people know about this free tax preparation assistance as other places may charge $100 or even $150 to do even a simple return. Worse, sometimes, other tax preparation places will offer a "instant tax refund" which is actually a short term loan with a high interest rate, repaid when the IRS refund comes in. The person many not actually get any of this refund if the IRS has liens against it for such things as unpaid traffic fines or child support, so in effect, the person ends up just paying a very high interest rate for a small amount of money."

Ms. Elgar told TCV that the United Way, working at the local and national levels, is continuously working to expand its understanding of how best to help economically disadvantaged people. She explained, "We collate information from each VITA site so that we can continue to update our repertoire of services and educational information and to focus on what is really needed." Ms. Elgar stated, "Our real strength is in the partnerships and coalitions we build with other community and governmental organizations." She then directed Tri-City Voice to the VITA site that serves our area, located at the Family Resource Center on Liberty Street in Fremont.

The Fremont Family Resource Center is a collaboration of 22 State, County, City of Fremont, and non-profit organizations co-located in two adjacent buildings, all working together to strengthen families, according to Judy Schwartz, Administrator of the center. As the owner of the buildings, the City of Fremont is the lead partner in the collaboration. Volunteers for VITA come from the community and through all the partner organizations, including the City of Fremont. This VITA site is part of the "Earn it !Keep it! Save it!" of Alameda County, coordinated by United Way and offers not just tax preparation, but also financial literacy information and banking resources.

The volunteer coordinator for the Fremont Family Resource Center site is Janis Garner. Ms. Garner emphasized the importance of ensuring that all eligible people file for a refund. She said, "The IRS sent us information about the amounts unclaimed in EITC credits. Newark had $487,406 in unclaimed credits last year, Fremont had $629,305 and Union City had $382,380! These are significant amounts and the IRS wants individuals to have them, not just because they deserve it but to boost the economy. However, individuals have to fill out the correct forms and this is where the VITA sites can help by providing free tax preparation assistance."

Ms. Garner stated that the VITA site at the Family Resource Center also offers literature and information on assisting people with asset development and "helping people acquire good stewardship skills of their financial assets". Ms. Garner informed TCV that although they do have a wealth of volunteers from all walks of life to assist with this program, they are always looking for more.

Training is provided by the VITA sites free of charge. Volunteer tax preparers need to pass a test with at least a 70% score in order to work as a preparer. . However, Ms. Garner said, there are many other volunteer positions that do not require one to pass the test such as greeters, screeners, and interpreters. The VITA program will begin on February 4th, 2004. For further information and specific hours please see the information below.

The Internal Revenue Service also provides tax preparation assistance for seniors known as Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) Program. To find the nearest TCE site, call the IRS toll-free Tax Help Line for Individuals at 1-800-829-1040. You may also call AARP, the largest TCE participant, through its Tax Aide Program, at 1-888-AARPNOW (1-888-227-7669).

Fremont Family Resource Center
39155 Liberty Street, # A110, Fremont 94538
Tax preparation starts 2/4/04
Wednesdays : 3:00-9:00
The following Saturdays: 2/7, 2/21, 3/6, and 3/20 from 10:00 am - 4:00 pm
Interpreters: Farsi, Indian dialects, Tagalog, Mandarin, Spanish By appointment.
Contact: Janis Garner
Phone: (510) 574-2290

EarnIt!Keepit!Saveit! To find a VITA location in Alameda County near you call 1-800-358-8832.

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