A Less Taxing Experience

A Less Taxing Experience

Volunteer tax preparers in Reston save families thousands.

For many people, filing tax returns is about as much fun as a root canal. But beyond the dread, there is an even bigger concern — losing money.

Since many people can’t afford professional tax services, they stumble through their returns, often making costly mistakes.

It’s something Sal Piazza has seen too often. In his eighth year as a tax preparation volunteer, Piazza has countless stories about people who saved hundreds of dollars by seeking help through the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistors (VITA) program.

Just recently, Piazza said, he saved an elderly woman about $300 after informing her that she could claim her disabled daughter as a dependent. Last year, after talking at length to a client and learning about her large medical expenses, he showed her how to itemize her deductions. The insight saved her about $200.

FOR THE PAST two months in Reston, trained volunteers at the Skill Source Center at Lake Anne have been saving families money. The Reston site, which focuses on working families who earn less than $38,000, generated $12,300 in refunds in the first weekend.

“We’re averaging [a refund of] about $3,000, which is mostly the earned income tax credit,” said David Maloney, the site coordinator who also works at Reston Interfaith, which co-hosts the site’s operation with the county. He said local residents who are aware of the program are appreciative.

As part of Fairfax County’s Creating Assets, Savings and Hope (CASH) program and in partnership with VITA, the Reston site is one of 10 locations throughout the county where volunteers are helping people correctly file their taxes.

AARP also helps prepare tax returns in Reston as well as other sites in the county. The AARP site is located at the Reston Community Center and runs Saturday mornings from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The AARP can assist people of all income levels while the CASH Campaign sites are limited to serving those whose family incomes are $38,000 or below.

About 21 to 25 percent of those eligible for the refundable earned income tax credit, which can reach up to $4,400, fail to take it when completing their tax return forms, according to county officials. When the credit is earned, the increased family income is equivalent to $1 per hour pay increase, according to some calculations.

AFTER HER FIRST time receiving help, Michele Kroes of Fairfax had only praise for the volunteers, who are trained in the IRS's VITA certification program.

“It’s wonderful,” said Kroes, a Fairfax resident. J.P. Nicolais of Vienna, a volunteer at the Reston site, walked Kroes through her taxes. Halfway through the process, Kroes’ refund exceeded $500.

“It’s great. They’re willing to work through all this,” she said, pointing to her pile of tax papers.

Fairfax County hopes to assist 2,000 people with free tax filing, which would bring in about $2.3 million of income to working families, said Patti Stevens, the county’s regional director for human services.

It’s that ambitious goal that has drawn volunteers from diverse backgrounds. Martha Olsen of Reston, a recent retiree, volunteers as a translator. “I wanted to do something more fulfilling,” said the Costa Rica native.

For Justin Gundlach, who recently moved back to the area after studying economics in London, the program provided an opportunity to get back involved in the community. “People tend to be really excited about their returns,” said Gundlach, an Arlington resident who has made his way to Reston every other Saturday to volunteer. Gundlach, who works at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., said he heard about the program when a Reston Interfaith recruiter came to his office.

THE CASH PROGRAM goes beyond helping with tax preparation. It also helps working families grow their money. A multi-year campaign, CASH begins with free tax preparation. It then links families to the existing financial planning and management resources in the community. Volunteers pass on valuable information about saving accounts, financial literacy, credit repair, job retention, wage advancements and home ownership.