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Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs help customers keep their money

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs help customers keep their money
Alvin and Mary Tasker of Finksburg fill out their tax information while having their taxes prepared by McDaniel College senior Jon DeFeo and freshman Amy Griffiths, right, as part of the VITA tax preparation program at McDaniel College in Westminster Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. The Taskers have gotten their taxes prepared through the VITA program for 10 years after learning about it from their granddaughter, a McDaniel College student. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

Those expecting a tax refund this year may need to wait a little longer than usual due to new anti-fraud efforts at the IRS, but households that earned $54,000 or less in 2016 are still eligible for free tax preparation at one of three Carroll County sites.

Human Services Programs of Carroll County operates one of the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA programs, out of the nonprofit's Westminster location at 10 Distillery Drive, according to Jenny Graybill, director of workforce development.

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VITA programs can process simple tax returns, according to Graybill, including some small, sole proprietorships, but not complex corporate structures or people earning more than the income limits. The idea, she said, is to allow people who are earning less to get more of their tax return — all of it in fact — which fits with HSP's mission to help in stabilizing the working poor.

"So many paid preparers will often charge to do a relatively basic return," Graybill said. "Our clients work very hard for all the money that they earn throughout the course of the year, and our tax site allows them to keep every dollar of that so they can stay housed, pay their bills and continue to work."

That's part of what drives the pair of accounting professors who operate McDaniel and Carroll Community colleges' VITA programs, Kerry Duvall and Kate Demarest, respectively. The two colleges had each operated their own VITA programs for many years, using accounting student volunteers as tax preparers, but merged to form a joint program in 2016.

"I was a tax advisor for 14 years before I started doing this program, and Kate is very well versed in the program; and you can come and get our services for free, as opposed to going down the street and paying $300-$400, which sadly is what some people pay even for a very simple tax return," Duvall said. "That's why we do the program, because we believe it's a very important way to give back to the community."

Fees at some tax preparers can be even higher when people get an advance on their return from a commercial preparer, according to Demarest, for what this is, in truth, a loan taken out against your anticipated refund.

"Right now, with modern e-filing, returns are being processed and refunds are going out in less than two weeks. That's not really an advantage," Demarest said. "If you're tight on cash that is the last place you want to spend it."

Tax filing season is underway, but people who file early and claim certain tax credits might wait longer for their refunds this year. This is thanks to new IRS efforts to crack down on fraud.

That's not to say there is not a place for commercial tax preparers, Graybill said, but for people who qualify for VITA site preparation, there is little downside to waiting a little longer to get all of their money.

"It's not our job to take over the tax business," she said. "It is our goal to provide services to people who really need to keep all their income."

All that being said, there could be some delays in the processing of returns for people claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Due to a rash of identity theft, where people have stolen the identities of other people's children and claimed them as dependents on their taxes in order to receive extra money from the government, the IRS for the first time will be taking extra time to scrutinize returns claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit, according to Demarest. This is designed to protect taxpayers, she said, as if someone else illegally claims your child on a fraudulent tax return before you file, your return would be rejected and you could be "be waiting months to get that straightened out."

Demarest predicts most people filing through a VITA site and claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit could be waiting until the end of February to have their return direct deposited.

In another wrinkle, there are likely to be more people seeking help at VITA sites this tax season simply because there are fewer commercial tax preparers in operation. In response to a surge in Maryland tax fraud — The Baltimore Sun reported fraudulent returns blocked by the Maryland Comptroller's Office jumped from 314 in 2007 to 13,052 in 2016 —Comptroller Peter Franchot has announced his office will no longer accept returns from 61 tax preparation companies, including 23 Liberty Tax Franchises.

"There is just a shortage of this services in the community. Last year we kind of overstretched our capacity and tried to accommodate people as they called," Demarest said, urging people to call and make an appointment as soon as possible.

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More information

Human Services Program of Carroll County Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program: Call 410-386-6653 to make an appointment or drop by HSP at 10 Distillery Drive, Westminster. Tax preparation is free for households earning $54,000 or less in 2016, direct deposit available. Program available all year for follow up questions.

McDaniel College and Carroll Community College joint Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program: Free tax preparation for households earning $54,000 or less available by appointment only through April 4. Call 410-386-8266 or email vita@carrollcc.edu for more information or to make an appointment.



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