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Income tax help offered at Community Services

February 27, 2019
By MEGHAN BRADBURY (news@breezenewspapers.com) , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance is now offering VITA Valet for residents of Lehigh Acres who wish to have help with their tax refunds without setting an appointment.

VITA Site Coordinator Mary Meador said the free program is an IRS sponsored service for low to moderate income individuals who earn $66,000 or less. She said they try to help save tax preparation fees, as well as get the individual, or family, the largest refund possible.

"I have been a volunteer doing the taxes there for nine or 10 years," Meador said, adding that now she is the site coordinator at Lehigh Community Services.

The service is offered through United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee, which she began working for in July.

So far 353 returns have been done in Lehigh Acres as of Feb. 18.

"In three weeks we have processed $591,624 in refunds for Lehigh alone," she said.

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Meador said with the size and population of Lehigh Acres, she began thinking that she should be able to do more tax returns due to a great deal of families meeting the requirement of earning $66,000 or less. She wanted to achieve this without having to add more appointments, more slots and volunteers.

"How can I help more people without adding more days," Meador thought.

The VITA service at Lehigh Community Services, 201 Plaza Drive, Suite 3, increased from two nights to four nights from last year to this year. There is also a time slot offered on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Individuals can make an appointment from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, or from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday..

To schedule an appointment with a preparer, visit UnitedWayLee.org/Free-Tax-Prep, call (239) 369-5818, or call United Way at (239) 433-3900. United Way VITA services are available until the tax filing deadline of April 15.

To accommodate more people, Meador added a VITA Valet service for individuals to drop off their paperwork on Tuesday while they work on the return throughout the week. That individual then stops by the following Tuesday to pick up the completed tax return.

To utilize the VITA Valet service, individuals can walk-in and drop off their paperwork from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. every Tuesday. The following Tuesday they can return during those same hours to pick up their completed return.

VITA Valet clients must complete an interview and intake form when dropping off their documents, which will be scanned into a secured site.

Meador said once they pick up their return she reviews the entire document with them, going over the entire return line by line before transmitting it to the IRS for them.

So far six people dropped off their tax return information on Feb. 12 and another six people took advantage of the VITA Valet on Feb. 19.

"I am really excited about it," she said.

Those who use the VITA service need to bring their ID, all of their tax documents, bank information if they want direct deposit, health insurance information, self-employed itemized list of expenses, or income, interest statement and sold stocks and bonds.

"We are required to have every client fill out an intake form. That is how we get information from them to do a more accurate return," Meador said.

The volunteers take time explaining why they owe money and steps they can take to avoid it from happening again the following year.

Also among the education they provide is encouragement to split money into their own checking and savings account if they receive a large refund.

"We have a little contest. If they put some money into savings and checking we will put their name into a drawing," she said, which can win them $100, $50 and $25. "We have 52 clients that have already done that this year. They have already split their refund."

Meador said a total of 1,325 returns have been completed in all of Lee and Hendry counties as of Feb. 18, totaling $2,749,005 in refunds.

"That doesn't include what they are saving in refund fees," she said.

According to United Way, last year, 5,000 individuals and families utilized the earned income tax credit and other available credits through free tax preparation resulting in $6.7 million, which came back to their five-county region. The free service saved an average of $250 per family in tax preparation fees.

There are approximately 26 volunteers who help with the VITA program at Lehigh Community Services performing the tasks of greeters, interpreters and preparers.

To be a preparer, the volunteer has to complete an IRS basic, or advanced certification test, which includes in-class and at-home training. All volunteers also have to take a code of conduct ethics test.

Meador said they are always looking for more volunteers.

"The more volunteers, the more people I can help," she said.

 
 

 

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