Working families could be passing up federal tax credits that they’re eligible for simply because they don’t know about them.
To help make sure families get the credits they’ve got coming to them, Cameron County has set up eight Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites around the county. The sites, staffed by volunteers who are trained and certified tax professionals, offer free tax preparation and electronic filing for families with yearly household incomes of $51,000 or less.
Six of the sites are in Brownsville, one in Harlingen and one in Los Fresnos. United Way of Southern Cameron County serves as a facilitator and coalition leader for the various public and private entities that make the tax assistance program possible each year.
Keren Arista, the United Way’s financial stability coordinator, said that last year volunteers helped some 2,300 clients countywide and retrieved more than $2 million in earned income tax credits that families were eligible for.
The VITA program is aimed at struggling families living paycheck to paycheck, and part of helping families reach financial stability is making sure they get all the benefits they’re entitled to, Arista said.
“A lot of people don’t realize that they have to file a tax return,” she said.
Families are encouraged to put at least some of their refund into savings. Those who choose to do so have the option of depositing a portion of their refund into a savings account, or using it to buy a U.S. Savings Bond, to create an emergency financial safety net.
As an incentive this year, United Way is issuing $25 gift cards at participating VITA sites to the first 24 clients who use part of their refund to purchase a savings bond.
Arista said the demand for VITA services grows every year. Last year 130 volunteers took IRS training to become certified tax preparers, while this year 190 volunteers showed up for training, she said. VITA has two new sites this year, at Lopez and Pace high schools.
“We’re usually limited by the number of volunteers we have preparing taxes,” Arista said. “The demand for services is greater always than we can meet.”
Of the eight VITA sites in Cameron County, two require an appointment: The ITEC Center, formerly Amigoland Mall in Brownsville and Ethel Whipple Memorial Library in Los Fresnos. To make an appointment at ITEC call (956) 574-4411 or (956) 882-4108. To make an appointment at Whipple Memorial Library call (956) 233-5330.
Brownsville VITA sites at the Brownsville Public Utilities Board, Community Development Corp. of Brownsville, and Lopez, Pace and Porter high schools do not require an appointment. Nor does the VITA site at Harlingen Outreach Center.
To get tax help through a VITA site, bring a valid photo ID; copy of your 2011 tax return if available; original Social Security cards, Social Security number verification letters or Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers for you, your spouse and any children born before Dec. 31, 2012.
Also, if it applies, bring documentation for child care expenses (including provider’s address and federal identification number), adoption expenses, alimony paid or received, notices received from the IRS or state tax office, college tuition and student loan interest statements, and any additional information related to prizes or awards, scholarships or fellowships, and lottery or gambling winnings.
Another option, for families with yearly incomes of $57,000 or less, is to get help filing your own tax return online via MyFreeTaxes.com. This will be available Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., in the Tandy Hall lobby on the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College campus through Feb. 14.
Also, United Way is working with UTB to teach students how to do their own taxes online to get their Free Application for Financial Student Aid completed in time to submit college financial aid applications, Arista said.
“We’re trying to get students and their families to file their tax return the first two weeks of February, so they’ll be able to meet the FAFSA deadlines,” she said. “The internal processing of the FAFSA form has changed. The university has told us that one of biggest reason for incomplete FAFSA forms is the tax data is incomplete.”
To find a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site near you call the abbreviated dialing code 211. Operators will ask you for your zip code and will direct you to the VITA site nearest you. Most sites are walk-in sites where clients are seen on a first come, first served basis.