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Need Your Taxes Done For Free? United Way Says No Problem

If you’re looking for help filing your taxes without spending a lot, or any money, look no further than the United Way.

“Our main mission is to keep money in the taxpayer’s pocket,” said Katrina Madden, the financial stability outreach manager at the United Way of West Florida. She says they are helping taxpayers save money through the United Way’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or VITA program.  It’s open to everyone with an annual household income of $66,000 or less.

“What’s happening is (people) are going out and getting their taxes done, and they are paying anywhere from $150 to $600, and it should be absolutely free," said Madden. "So with that, we want to educate them about their taxes and let them know that (they) don’t have to pay that money. Start a savings account, emergency fund, whatever you need to do with that money, and we’ll take care of you. So we want to educate and empower our clients about their taxes and make sure that they are getting the credits that they deserve.”

The VITA program is nothing new. It’s a program that was started by the IRS in 1972 and provides free tax preparation for low and middle income taxpayers.

“If you look around town you’ll see different tax preparation sites (that are) offering ‘get your money right now’.  And every time you see these they are always in low income neighborhoods. It’s predatory. It’s like predatory lending. So they’re taking a loan against their own money and they’re paying upwards of $600 for this loan. So that’s what we want to prevent.”

Madden, who was taking a quick break from helping clients at the main campus of Pensacola State College, says the United Way is operating the VITA program in various location around the area.

“We have (locations at 1380 N. Palafox St.) at the Community Action Program Committee, we have it here at the Pensacola (State College) main campus, we have it at Warrington because we want to make sure that we’re serving our military population so we’re at Pensacola State College Warrington (campus). We are (also) in Santa Rosa County. We are at the Early Learning Coalition (6460 Justice Avenue in Milton) in Santa Rosa County. And we are at the Goodwill Easter Seals (1715 E. Olive Road in Pensacola) right now. And then I’ll be doing some rotating sites, pop-up sites around town as the tax season progresses.” 

The people preparing taxes for clients are, for the most part volunteers who are looking to give some time to help the community. And some are looking for college credit. 

"Through my tax class, I actually have the students go through training and become VITA certified,” said Dr. Barbara White, assistant professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at the University of West Florida. Each year anywhere from 20 t0 40 of her students work at the United Way’s VITA sites. “What’s interesting about this year is that since United Way of Escambia County (is now United Way of West Florida), and took over in Santa Rosa County, is now I have some students also serving at some sites in Milton. And since we have our Fort Walton campus, I actually have a few students serving over there with the United Way of Okaloosa County. (There are two locations in Fort Walton Beach as well as locations in Crestview and DeFuniak Springs.) 

Credit United Way

Dr. White says some students that have participated in past years come back and help even though they are not in the class. They just want to come a volunteer their time. For her class Dr. White requires her student put in at least 20 hours during the tax season. However she says many volunteer for more.

“I had one student last year, I think he put in over 100 hours, and another student I think she put in 80 (or) 90 hours. It varies, but usually most all the students at least meet the 20 hours.”

As for clients, the only people who are not eligible to have their taxes done for free are people with family incomes over $66,000. Katrina Madden says, as you might expect, the demand for this service is high.

“It gets very busy," she said. "People know about the program, the word is getting out and they don’t want to pay money to get their taxes done, and I don’t blame them. So we get very busy. So this year, because of the demand, we have gone to appointment-only. So that way I can control (how many people are waiting for service). Last year we had 50 people waiting in the lobby first thing in the morning, it was crazy! So we are going to appointment-only. All they have to do is dial 211 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. and they’ll get an appointment, or they can schedule their own appointment by going to uwwf.org/taxhelp

Just dial 211 between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. and you will be able to make an appointment for the VITA program location most convenient to you.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.