Volunteers with a United Way of Denton County program that helps local residents prepare their tax returns brought more than $1 million in refunds this year.
The amount nearly doubled what volunteers were able to do last year, going from $582,600 to $1,037,382 in total refunds.
This is the sixth year that the local United Way has trained volunteers to help individuals and families avoid the high cost of tax preparation with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program. This year, 43 volunteers helped 593 families file by preparing their returns for free and filing them by the April 15 deadline.
Part of the agency’s Financial Stability Initiative, VITA helps low- and moderately low-income residents file for and keep more of their tax credits.
According to Gary Henderson, president and CEO of United Way of Denton County, one client this year was a single mother of three who works at a grocery store.
Last year, she gave up about $1,000 of her tax refund to an income tax service that charged her a portion of her refund to cover the preparation fee. But this year, VITA volunteers helped her with her return and she was able to put all of her $7,000 refund toward her family’s needs.
Some of her refund included tax credits for child care and earned income, Henderson said. In all, volunteers found $76,865 in child tax credits and $356,769 in earned income tax credits for VITA clients.
While the program grew fast this year, VITA is limited in how many clients it can serve by the number of people who become volunteers, Henderson said.
Volunteers don’t have to be trained as accountants, but the program does take time and training, Henderson said. Participants must be certified as a volunteer tax preparer by the Internal Revenue Service.
“We figured it takes between 20 and 40 hours for our volunteers to study and take the classes and take the tests — all time spent before they ever spend a moment of time with a client,” Henderson said.
But the program’s impact on the community is large, Henderson said, especially considering that much of the money refunded goes back into the local economy as it’s spent on basic household needs. .
“That’s half of our campaign total,” Henderson said, referring to the more than $2 million United Way raised last year to meet community needs.
Traci Williamson, head of the local VITA program, said she is looking ahead at changes to the tax code related to health care and how those may affect VITA clients’ returns next year.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.