GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jess Gaylor, a retired Army veteran, saw a sign on his church bulletin board for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and decided to give the free program a try to file his income taxes.
“It was available when I needed it and the cost was definitely right and it was close to the house,” said Gaylord, who files married with his wife Martha. “I’ve told several people about it.”
UF/IFAS Extension is currently implementing the VITA program in 10 Florida counties to help under-served individuals and those who are at risk for abuse by unscrupulous tax preparers.
“Heather, the Extension worker who helps us, has a great personality,” Gaylord added. “We’ve never had a problem on either end.”
VITA is an IRS-sponsored program run by non-profits, using volunteers who are trained and certified by the IRS as basic tax reporters. These volunteers sit down with limited-resource community members and provide free, basic income-tax-return preparation with electronic filing.
“Part of the problem is that these families don’t have a lot of money and were falling victim to predatory practices, as opposed to getting their taxes done for free and making sure they’re taking advantage of every tax deduction and credit they’re eligible for,” said Associate Dean for Extension and State Program Leader for 4-H Youth Programs, Families and Communities, Michael Gutter.
The program is targeted at low-to moderate- income individuals (generally those who make $52,000 and below), persons with disabilities, the elderly and limited English-speaking individuals who need help filing their returns. However, no one will be turned away at the door if they do not meet these criteria. The volunteers will only not help individuals who bring in taxes that are beyond the scope of what the volunteer can return, Gutter said.
IFAS partnered last year on the VITA program with several non-profit agencies. But this year the IRS asked them to specifically focus on a model that was internal to IFAS.
Right now, the focus of the program is in the panhandle, northeast and northwest parts of the state- mostly in rural counties, utilizing in-person counseling and also Skype technology. But Gutter hopes to expand it statewide, also using Skype, since not all extension offices will have in-person volunteers.
So far this tax season IFAS Extension has already helped more than 100 people through the VITA program and that number is still growing.
The volunteers are trained on basic concepts of tax returns, taxes, economics and finance. They must take and pass a test that is administered by the IRS on their website. Once they’ve passed that, they’re issued a certificate as a certified tax preparer.
IFAS is currently redoing the website for the VITA program but the place where it will be available at the state-wide level is called the Florida Information Network, in partnership with United Way and 2-11.