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Volunteer Tax Angels Get Refunds Flying High

By SUSAN CAMPBELL

January 09, 2008

On Jan. 1, the twin engines that fuel the weight-loss industry and tax-preparation companies roared into life with an onslaught of television and print ads diet and taxes, the two modern inevitables.

Weeks before, 11 volunteers sat around a table at the Hartford office of Co-opportunity Inc. to learn to fill out tax forms for the Volunteer Tax Assistance program. If a few post-holiday pounds are unavoidable, at least the volunteers would be prepared to complete forms for poor and moderate-income taxpayers for free.

One of the volunteers sells paper for a living. One works for Village for Families and Children. A third is an Asnuntuck Community College student. The paper seller did this 15 years ago. "I need a lot of retraining," he says. Tax laws change like the wind, and he and the others will go through a minimum of eight hours of training.

Tonight, their trainers are Laura O'Keefe, director of the Hartford Asset Building Collaborative, and William Morrow, who works for the Internal Revenue Service. They have placed in front of the volunteers an impressive stack of spiral-bound notebooks. O'Keefe reassures them that they don't have to read everything, and that there's a cheat sheet. That's a good thing, because taken together, the training manuals stack up nearly 2 inches high.

"This is your Bible," said O'Keefe, and she holds up Publication 4012, a volunteer resource guide, and Publication 17, another manual. "You will come to know this well."

O'Keefe is energetic, and the silver necklace she wears swings when she talks. She hands out a tax law overview, another booklet, and a super-secret phone number known only to VITA volunteers.

They stress in their training filing for EITC earned income tax credit a federal income tax credit for low-income working individuals and families. The credit was originally approved by Congress more than 30 years ago and has grown to become a main source of cash assistance for low-income families. The program is considered so successful that some cities and states not Connecticut have EITC programs of their own.

O'Keefe tells the volunteers that for some clients, their tax refund may amount to 10 percent of their annual income. She tells the story of one client who faced losing her house until she walked out of a VITA site with enough money to save it. With the annual influx of cash, families can start saving money, or dig themselves out of a financial hole, says O'Keefe. To make saving easier, clients can open bank accounts with Hartford Federal Credit Union at any Hartford VITA site and get direct deposit within a few days.

As great a windfall as it can be, the IRS says $33 million in EITC goes unclaimed by Connecticut residents alone.

"There are people who don't do their taxes at all, either because they don't need to file or they're afraid to file," said O'Keefe. Some taxpayers don't make enough money to file a return, though they must do so in order to collect EITC payments.

Though VITA is free, the program doesn't have the money to buy flashy commercials to draw in crowds. It relies, instead, on fliers, and letting nonprofits and case managers know they're around.

O'Keefe is still looking for volunteers. You don't need to know tax law. A computer program takes care of that. You do need to know how to do data entry. VITA volunteers will be at 14 sites open through April 15. Hours vary from site to site, but for an appointment for free tax preparation, call Infoline (211) to set up an appointment.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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