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Volunteer tax preparers work to help others

By Jessica Rodrigo
April 5, 2014 at 12:02 a.m.
Updated April 5, 2014 at 11:06 p.m.

Site coordinator Blaise Elliott, 33, of Victoria, talks about the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program while her sons Levi, 4, left, and Ethan, 6, center left, play on computers at Victoria College.

File your taxes with VITA

The program is hosted inside the Victoria College Continuing Education Center, on Ben Jordan Street between Loma Vista Avenue and Red River Street, from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday and from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday.

To qualify for the assistance, taxpayers must have a valid Social Security card, photo identification, earn a total household income of less than $52,000 and bring all appropriate W-2s and 1099s, if applicable.

For more information about VITA, call 361-578-2989.

Unlike most people, numbers don't scare Blaise Elliott.

The stay-at-home mother of three is the site coordinator for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program sponsored by the Community Action Committee and the Internal Revenue Service.

She is one of five volunteers this year helping the community file income taxes and earning the maximum refund available.

"Anyone can come and volunteer," Elliott, 33, said.

It doesn't hurt that she has a bachelor's degree in accounting and has had previous experience working with the IRS before she quit to take care of her kids, Levi, 4; Ethan, 6; and Travis, 14.

For the other preparers, including second-year volunteer Ron Schul, 69, of Victoria, there is a three-day training session with IRS professionals.

In January, each volunteer is trained by the IRS to serve as part of the program. For three days, the group is taught what kind of questions to ask and how to calculate the highest possible return for the taxpayer. Members learn the basic tax credits and how to submit returns by hand and also with computer software.

To ensure accuracy, each return filed by a volunteer preparer is checked by Elliott or another preparer before being sent off. The preparers will look for transposed numbers or other possible inaccuracies in the calculations, Elliott said.

"People can be confident that they'll receive accurate tax preparation," she said.

After about half an hour's worth of work, the taxpayers find out how much their refund will be.

"Everyone is pleasantly surprised when they find out how much they're making in their refund," she said.

It's one of the reasons Schul returned to the program.

"I enjoy helping people," the retired business owner said.

One woman received an $11,000 refund, he said, and she was just thrilled to hear the news.

For some of the taxpayers who come in, Schul said they know whether they are going to get a big return or sometimes if they are going to owe the IRS.

When the program began in January, Elliott said a lot of people came in to get their tax refunds right away. Closer to April 15, she said, a lot of the taxpayers who owe money will come in to file.

Regardless of whether the taxpayers will receive a refund or owe the IRS, the service is provided for people with total household incomes of no more than $52,000.

"We try to limit it to people who really need our services," Elliot said.

Hiring a tax preparer shouldn't cost people their refund, she said.

If people are only going to get back a few hundred dollars, then that money should go back to them, said Vicki Smith, executive director of the Community Action Committee in Victoria.

"It puts more spending power in the hands of the residents, and that is our goal," she said. "This way, they have more money to spend on their needs."

The program is in its second year and has already had a large number of repeat taxpayers come in for to file their taxes, Smith said. She estimated that more than half of the people who have come in came last year to file their returns.

With the help of Victoria County United Way, Wells Fargo, Victoria College and health care providers who are helping people navigate through the Affordable Care Act, Smith said the program has been a growing success so far.

"We will be here next year. They can count on it," she said.

As for Elliott and Schul, they plan on returning as volunteers to help people get the most out of the tax refund.

"It's a valuable resource for people," Elliott said. "And it's free."

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