By Ciara Smith, Gary Crusader
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Barnes-Caldwell, and special guests from Washington, D.C. gathered on Tuesday to celebrate an ongoing program that could relieve many Gary taxpayers.
In a press conference, the Urban League of Northwest Indiana partnered with the U. S. Conference of Mayors to let qualifying residents know how they can get their 2017 taxes – both federal and state – filed for free.
The Urban League is participating in VITA, a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program that pairs certified preparers with eligible candidates to get their yearly taxes filed by the April 18 deadline. The Urban League is one of a number of sites in the area providing free income tax services for anyone earning less than $54,000 a year, and they are now welcoming additional volunteers.
VITA sites have been around since 2004, and are sponsored by United Way, Chase Bank, IRS, and the Northwest Indiana Asset Building Campaign.
But according to NWI Community Action Asset Building Manager Leona Liuzzo, the most important asset of the program is its volunteers. “None of this could be possible without our wonderful volunteers. Last year we had 101 volunteers serving the community members of Lake, Porter, Stark, and Pulaski counties. They donated more than 4,000 hours of their time and helped more than 2,800 individuals and families. Nearly 1.8 million federal refund dollars made their way back to our local communities,” said Liuzzo. “This year we have 19 sites, and we aim to beat last year’s record!”
Mayor Freeman-Wilson echoed the appreciation for current and future volunteers and the local affiliate.
“I’m really excited about this program. This is truly a national partnership that has worked to the great benefit of our local community. It’s really evidence of how we can take those programs that are working and take it to a great level in Northwest Indiana to make it work for our citizens,” said the mayor.
“I can’t say enough about the volunteers. Certainly people can do other things with their time. They’ve chosen to use it here on behalf of the citizens of this community. We want our citizens and our seniors, and those who meet the income guidelines to come right here and take advantage of this service. So we’re excited about being a part of this and support it 100 percent.”
Dr. Vanessa Allen, CEO and President of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana, while grateful for the volunteers they have, says they still need more for the anticipated tax-day rush.
“We still need other volunteers to come in. [Volunteers] are certified through the IRS system in order to prepare and process taxes, but there’s a great need. We still have a waiting2list of people. All of the appointments are filled, but we need preparers. We promise not to keep you too long and the IRS testing is appropriate for what you will be doing,” she said.
Tax professionals who would like to volunteer their services are asked to contact the Urban League office at 219-887-9621 and ask for Tersina Jones.
The average refund in Indiana for Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) recipients for 2016 was just under $2,500. Four out of five people who are eligible nationally use it. Those are good numbers, but that 20 percent of people who qualify but don’t use it are leaving $12 billion on the table. So if you have a family, it’s really important that you come in to the Urban League to get some assistance. Make sure that you apply for these funds as part of your tax preparation,” said Gatton. “We realize that we are coming close to the end, so you may not be able to come in. If you can’t come in physically there’s a way to file your taxes through the Free File program.”
The Free File Program is a partnership between the IRS, the state of Indiana and 12 major software companies that are offering their tax services free of charge.
To highlight the free online options Chris Long, of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, discussed Free File. “My mantra is don’t pay. There’s no need to pay. With VITA, if your income is less than $54,000 a year, you can come in and use these services, but for Free File it’s $64,000 or less,” he said.
“To access online tax services through Free File, go to IRS.gov and click on the Free File logo. It will take you to the list of 12. Not all 12 give both state and federal—only six are providing state as well. Those you can find at the Indiana Department of Revenue website.”