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Free tax helpers at your service
Even very low income residents may be due a tax refund, so file, program officials say.
By CAMILLE C. SPENCER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 1, 2008
Vilma Berrios watched this week as Guy Alfano filled out her tax return on a laptop computer.
After an hour and a few technical glitches, Alfano, a volunteer tax preparer, turned to Berrios and delivered some good news.
"Five-hundred sixty-eight dollars," he said, referring to her refund.
"I thought it would be $600," Berrios said, laughing. "But that's okay."
Berrios, 69, was one of the first Pasco people to take advantage of this year's Prosperity Campaign, a free tax preparation program sponsored by the United Way and AARP.
The two organizations first teamed up in 2005 to provide tax help for low- to moderate-income residents.
Their goal? To help about 6,000 Pasco families reap the benefits of about $3-million in tax credits they've missed out on.
One of those is the earned income tax credit, available for those who work and meet low-income qualifications based on the size of their household.
When the tax program began in 2005, it helped about 320 Pasco residents file for the credit, generating $278,160 in refunds.
In 2006, 428 participants received the credit, collecting $452,000 in refunds. In 2007, the figure increased to 528 people who received $608,000 in refunds.
Residents still need to be encouraged to obtain the credit, said Susan Arnett, president of United Way of Pasco.
One reason: Those who qualify for the earned income tax credit are eligible for a homebuyer program for low-income residents that's sponsored by United Way and Pasco County Community Development. The program provides a matching grant of up to $10,000 with a 0 percent interest loan that can be deferred up to five years.
"We still haven't touched the tip of the iceberg for people who can obtain the tax credit," she said. "They think their income is too low to file, so they may not be filing returns at all."
During the program's first year, about 75 volunteers from the AARP and IRS prepared free tax returns around the county. The volunteers, who go through a weeklong training program, filed 4,190 returns.
In 2006, about 150 volunteers pitched in, but only about 3,900 returns were filed. Officials are unsure why that figure dropped.
In 2007, the number of volunteers dipped to 110, but the number of tax returns jumped to 5,015.
Last year, the program generated $2.9-million in total refunds, Arnett said. The average refund was $593.
"This past year, the program exceeded my expectations," she said. "We're excited about the potential in this community."
This year, 140 volunteers will prepare returns for residents like Berrios, a Beall's employee who has been using the tax program for the past few years.
Berrios already has big plans for her tax refund. She's going on a cruise with her niece.
"We are going to Cancun in April," she said, "and we're going to boogie."