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TMCNet:  Tax season starts up at DSS

[January 14, 2013]

Tax season starts up at DSS

Jan 14, 2013 (The Wilson Daily Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Wilson County Department of Social Services is getting ready for this year's tax season. And today officials will start taking appointments for those who need to get their taxes done.
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The agency's program, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or VITA, provides free tax preparation for low to moderate income families for Wilson residents who $51,000 or less per year.

"It's amazing that it's free," said Lucama resident Robin Johnson. "And they do it electronically." This will the third year, Robin and her husband, Ron, have utilized the service.

The program is primarily funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Internal Revenue Service. For the remainder of the funding, DSS officials use volunteers, who are trained and certified to prepare those taxes. DSS staff, along with Barton College and Wilson Community College volunteers work in collaboration each year to provide the free service.

"Each year we hear from so many families that saved money by using this service," said Amber Denning, DSS' VITA program coordinator. "We serve every type of family." NEARLY $1 MILLION IN REFUNDS Last year's program helped 695 families with nearly $1 million in state and federal refunds, officials said. The Johnsons were one of those families.

"People charge hundreds of dollars for this, and here they are," Robin said. "They go so beyond the call." The Johnsons said the first year they heard about the free tax program, they almost couldn't believe it.

"We were totally dumbfounded, shocked by it," Robin said. "It was just amazing they offered the same service, same courtesy." And that year, due to various situations, the Johnsons didn't think they were going to get any money back.

"We were very surprised that we were going to get anything back," Robin said. "They saved us." She said while they know there are many more families struggling even more they are in a tough economy, the program helped them save money by not having to pay someone to do their taxes.

Denning said that's what the program is all about.

"It saves (families) a tremendous amount of money," Denning said. "It's a cutting edge type of program. We want more people to take advantage of it." On average, people usually pay between $150 to $200 for someone to prepare their taxes. Last year, DSS officials estimated they saved those hundreds of families they served $139,000 combined.

A SERVICE When the program first started nine years ago, volunteers prepared 110 tax returns, Denning said. Officials said they've continued to see an increase in clients as more find about the free program.

"We increased significantly last year," Denning said. "Our program has a lot of sustainability. Our leadership here fully supports our program." From college students to retired folks, the program has helped many types of families.

DSS Communications Manager Ron Hunt said the program is for anyone who is eligible.

"There's not a typical person," he said. "This really is a service to anyone." The eligibility only requires folks to make $51,000 or less, officials said.

But the program isn't just about tax preparations. Volunteers also give families information on building savings, asset building and home ownership programs. Officials also said the VITA site has specific goals, too, which include providing outreach and education to working families about the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.

MORE THAN A TAX PROGRAM The Johnsons said they still use those valuable tips they received from volunteers three years ago.

Robin said like some people, they have a high deductible for medicines and doctor's bills. VITA volunteers suggested they keep a folder to keep all their receipts in for the entire year.

"You have one place for all your receipts," she said. "We have an accordion briefcase and keep our little papers in it for the year." The Johnsons said they've already started getting those receipts together for this year.

"It's a lot of little things like that you don't think of," Robin said.

Hunt said the program is successful due to the collaboration of many throughout the Wilson community.

"Partnerships are important," he said, adding the program helps families keep more of their own money.

"That's one of the best things we can do," Hunt said.

While there are many VITA program sites around the country, there are few that are housed at department of social services. Wilson's DSS is one of those few across the country, officials said.

"It's our opportunity as an agency to reach out in a nontraditional manner," Denning said about their program that has gained recognition throughout the state and country. "We try to let them know about several things when they come in the door. It's more than getting your taxes done. It's a way to build relationships with families." olivia@wilsontimes.com -- 265-7879 ___ (c)2013 The Wilson Daily Times (Wilson, N.C.) Visit The Wilson Daily Times (Wilson, N.C.) at www.wilsontimes.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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