By: Brian Crespo – News Editor
This Spring, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (more commonly known as VITA) will again be assisting Newark’s taxpayers in filing their returns. The popular initiative saves local residents millions each year and is completely free.
“[For the tax year 2019] the total amount of returns to greater Newark taxpayers was over $12.4M (~$10.2M in federal returns and ~$2.2M in state returns)” says Danielle Corea-Smith, Director of Impact Initiatives at the United Way of Greater Newark, a local non-profit organization.
Those who complete their returns through the program also avoid a filing fee (averaging about $175). It is estimated that Newark taxpayers saved close to $1M in fees alone in 2019. The savings from fees, state returns, and federal returns summed to about 13.4 million for the 2019 tax year. To put this in perspective, if 13.4 million dollars were spread evenly over the program’s roughly 6,000 Newark users, it would result in an average return of about $2,200 per person.
The Rutgers Accounting Society (RAS) of Newark participates in the program annually. Kimvy Tran, an Accounting Sophomore at RBS Newark and the Fundraising Director for RAS, volunteered in 2019 and organized VITA informational sessions for the 2021 tax season.
“I did it in 2019 and loved it” Tran said. “[They] taught me everything I needed to know and I gained so many friends through the process.”
Tran is confident about the program’s ability to adapt to pandemic conditions, saying that VITA is ‘very prepared’ for this coming spring.
‘The process may be different to get your taxes done but these volunteers and supervisors are very knowledgeable and compassionate’ she says.
Like other organizations, VITA has evolved in the wake of COVID-19. The program has long utilized online learning tools and certifications, but prior to the virus, tax preparers met taxpayers in person. The demographics of these taxpayers makes them particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. The gross income limit for the program is $66,000 and, combined with a weak economy, few of its users can afford an extensive hospital stay. They often belong to groups disproportionally hurt by the pandemic, both in terms of their health and their finances. A refund of a hundred dollar or the sidestepping of a costly filing fee can become a matter of survival. With its necessity well-established, how will VITA continue to serve its constituents while also ensuring their safety?
“All partners of the NABC [Newark Asset Building Coalition] are taking steps to ensure that all clients, staff, and volunteers are protected in light of the on-going pandemic” says Corea-Smith. The virus forced the shutdown of several VITA sites in April and March of 2020, with many moving towards ‘contactless’ tax preparation in the months that followed. These safety precautions will be reintroduced and strengthened for the 2021 tax season. Participating taxpayers will now have two ways to file their returns: a drop-off method, and an online method.
Let’s start with the drop-off method. As opposed to meeting face to face with their preparers, Newark taxpayers will submit their tax documents and an intake form to one of five organizations in the Newark area. From here, taxes will be prepared by IRS-certified volunteers as well as tax professionals at those locations and will be quality reviewed before the tax return is completed and returned to the client.
In addition to the drop-off method, VITA will be offering an innovative digital method of tax return via a platform called Get Your Refund “The United Way of Greater Newark VITA services will also be offered entirely online and is open to anyone making $66,000 or less, including students” says Corea-Smith. Under this method, taxpayers will upload their documents to a secure website instead of dropping them off at a physical location. After having an individual consultation with tax professionals over the phone, taxpayers will have the option to receive their returns through a secure online platform within a week. The online portal (getyourrefund.org/UWGN) is set to open on February 1st. Eligible taxpayers need only a laptop or iPhone to participate.
The program’s ease of use and risk-free cost-savings make it an attractive option for taxpayers seeking a refund or wanting to avoid a pesky filing fee. Corea-Smith is optimistic that VITA will continue to improve going forward, catering to both homebodies and those who require in-person interaction with a tax preparer.
“We hope to pair this service in the future with our traditional VITA services for those who do not have easy access to the internet” she says.
For a full list of tax site locations and more information, visit http://www.nabcnj.org/newark-free-tax-prep/