Preparing tax returns can seem complicated, and paying someone to help can be cost prohibitive for many.
A free program put in place seven years ago in Jackson County aims to remedy the problem for low- and middle-income families.
Jackson County United Way’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program files taxes for those with a household income of less than $60,000 in Jackson County. Those returns have allowed earners to receive some of the $1.3 million in federal and state returns issued to county residents each year.
“A lot of us are one paycheck away from losing homes, cars and other things,” said Bonita Dobbs, program manager with Jackson County United Way.
“This is one way the United Way helps educate and ensure residents stay ahead of that one paycheck,” she said.
Many people receiving tax refunds plan on using the money to catch up on their bills, repair their vehicle or make rent or other utility payments.
“We’ve come to the service for quite a few years,” said Rebecca Scott of Freetown. “We had them prepared professionally other places, and it cost us close to $400 at one place.”
And that cost is not uncommon, Dobbs said. Many tax preparation businesses require $250 or more for filing taxes based on what the filer will see as a return.
“It’s life’s necessities that they are paying with these returns,” Dobbs said.
In addition to education and health, financial stability is part of the goals of the United Way, whether that means getting tax filers the most they can to help with bills or in the event of them owing money, working with individuals to understand why they owe on their taxes and maybe even prevent it in the future.
The tax returns are prepared by a group of volunteers, some of whom have completed as much as 40 hours of training on filing returns with the Internal Revenue Service.
“It’s a very rigorous course through the IRS’s online program,” Dobbs said.
While challenging, the chance to help individuals is why one volunteer said she likes to help out.
“I feel excited,” said Mary Koop, a third-year volunteer with the program. “I get to help somebody else. It’s just rewarding.”
The program has a number of volunteers with different levels of training. At least one volunteer has completed the advanced classification of training.
“I said I’d do it, then I saw the books for training,” said Koop, who is one of the advanced tax preparation volunteers for the program. “I work at a bank, so I’m good with numbers.”
The program involves studying books issued by the IRS followed by an online course, all completed during the volunteer’s free time.
“I took the basic and then thought I’d try the advanced course. I decided to stick with the basic after that,” said Lisa Amos, a first-year volunteer.
Amos said she had no previous training doing taxes but had always enjoyed working with numbers, and the VITA program seemed like a good volunteer program for her.
“The volunteers here are like a giant family,” Dobbs said.
And the work of the volunteers is appreciated by those who use the service.
“They’re good. I recommend other people try it,” said Wanda Campbell of Seymour.
This is the second year Campbell has used the VITA program.
Originally, Campbell prepared her own taxes. But after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Campbell said she felt filing a tax return had become too complicated.
“It’s a weight off my mind that I don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Campbell said.
“People rely on these returns sometimes. We want to help them get the most back from their returns,” Dobbs said.
Scott said her return will most likely go to paying bills during winter months and home improvements.
“It’s an amazing service, and we would recommend it to anyone,” Scott said.
The service is easy to participate in. Those wishing to have their taxes filed need to make less than $60,000 a year and schedule an appointment by contacting Jackson County’s 2-1-1 or calling 812-376-6666.
The program is designed to handle basic purposes. More complicated tax filing may require the filer to use a professional service.
Once an appointment is scheduled, taxpayers will need a photo identification and Social Security card for them and their spouses if filing jointly as well as any dependents.
Those filing also will need to bring their W-2 and any additional forms required for tax purposes.
Those who do not have these will be turned away and forced to reschedule.
Last year, volunteers helped file 238 tax returns for local residents.
United Way executive director Tonja Couch said she has set a higher goal — 1,000 returns — for this year.
The VITA program group hopes to continue the program next year; however, the program is funded in part by grants and in part from organizations in the community.
“We were funded in large part this year by the Community Foundation of Jackson County. To keep this program going, we need to continue to find funding,” Dobbs said.
Luvia Hesser, health insurance navigator with the Community Health Center of Jackson County, also is present to help those who had questions about health insurance or how it affected their taxes.
“I’m setting up people for insurance and if they need a helping hand with the health insurance marketplace,” Hesser said.
Hesser may be contacted at the Community Health Center of Jackson County at 812-524-8388, ext. 4410.
What: Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program
Where: Jackson County Public Library, 303 W. Second St., Seymour
Who: Service is available for households with less than $60,000 a year in income
How: Schedule an appointment by contacting Jackson County’s 2-1-1 or by calling 812-376-6666