Derby: Free tax preparation -- maximizing refunds to promote financial stability

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The United Way of Windham County focuses on building HOPE with programs that foster health, opportunity, prosperity and education for county residents. Promoting financial stability and independence is a major facet of our prosperity initiatives, and filing taxes is part of virtually everyone's financial picture.

That's why sponsoring Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and MyFreeTaxes.com has been part of our spring ritual for more than 11 years. VITA offers free federal and state tax preparation and filing assistance to eligible taxpayers who live or work in Windham County and earn up to $54,000 per year. MyFreeTaxes.com offers free tax preparation and filing assistance to eligible filers who earn up to $66,000 a year.

Let's start with the endgame of these programs, which is simply to help ensure that clients receive the maximum federal and state refunds they're entitled to. The Earned Income Tax Credit — a powerful pro-work, anti-poverty program that helps filers keep more of what they earn — offers a compelling snapshot of how these free tax prep programs can help individuals and families connect the dots between taxes and financial stability. A high percentage of filers qualify for the EITC, but an estimated one in five qualified filers leaves money on the table by not filing for the credit. And that money can make a big difference in putting food on the table, paying bills, reducing debt and meeting other financial obligations. Nationally, in 2015, the EITC lifted 6.5 million people out of poverty, including 3.3 million children, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In addition, the average adjusted gross income of program participants is below $21,000 in Windham County. We estimate that the cost of tax preparation and filing elsewhere would exceed $250 per family — money that can instead be used to shore up financial stability. In 2017, VITA and MyFreeTaxes.com saved Windham County filers an estimated $100,000 in filing costs.

Finally, filers reported a non-financial benefit of the programs: less tax trepidation and stress as the April filing deadline approaches.

And there's a bigger picture. Connecting community members to their maximum refund also supports community economic development. More than $715,000 in federal and state refunds was returned to our community last year, creating a potential windfall for local businesses.

These tax programs work because of our intrepid UWWC volunteers. In 2017, 24 VITA volunteer appointment schedulers, greeters and IRS-certified tax preparers provided 1,222 total hours of service, the equivalent of $28,790.32 in donated time. And the clients they serve rate them highly as trustworthy and people-oriented. If volunteering for these programs interests you, watch for an open house announcement this fall on our website at unitedwaywindham.org and on Facebook.

We are also grateful to the generous Brattleboro Retreat, our new host for VITA this year. More space has enabled expansion of the program and improvement of the services offered.

If you would like more information or would like to support these programs, visit unitedwaywindham.org or call 802-257- 4011. To make an appointment, call 211. The programs are offered through April 12.

Carmen Derby is the executive director of the United Way of Windham County.

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