VITA Tax Help Program in Second Year at Franklin Library
Volunteers Needed for IRS-Sponsored Program
By Judith Dorato O’Gara
Daunted by tax time? If you are an individual who makes under $60K a year or have a language barrier or disability that keeps you from properly filing your taxes, you can get free help doing your taxes at the Franklin Public Library. Thanks to the Volunteer Income Tax Preparation Assistance Program (VITA), a program sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), you can make an appointment for tax help at the library on Saturdays from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., starting February 3rd through April 13. During those hours, intake volunteers will be available to make your hour-long tax preparation appointment at the library.
Programming and outreach librarian Mitzi Gousie initiated this effort at the library.
“The program has been running across the country for multiple years,” says Gousie, “I saw it available at other libraries, and I figured it was something we could offer here at Franklin. It’s done at the Senior Center for seniors, but there was nothing in town for non-seniors. The closest one to Franklin is 7.3 miles away in Woonsocket, RI.”
Gousie hopes for more volunteers, not only to work on taxes, but also to greet people and do intake, as well as be available to fill in in case another volunteer has an illness or emergency.
“To run the site, you need a minimum of two people, because every tax return that is filed at a VITA site has to be reviewed by another volunteer that has the training for that level of tax return.”
Tax returns are categorized into levels of basic, advanced, international, and military. The Franklin Library only guarantees access to a basic return, says Gousie, “but if the stars align, we can take care of an advanced return. It really depends on the level the volunteers are willing to go as far as certification.”
Volunteers need only a GED or high school diploma, and training is provided.
“There are multiple levels of certification, and you do not have to be a certified tax preparer to volunteer at the site,” says Gousie. “The most minimum level of certification is the code of conduct, the normal things you’d expect of honesty and integrity, protecting the taxpayer information. The exams are not difficult so much as they are a way for the IRS to guarantee that you have some level of understanding of the current tax code as it stands and experience preparing a return before being in front of a person, and experience with some of the exceptions.” Another level of certification is intake certification, which allows a volunteer to determine what level of return a taxpayer will need – and whether the site is the best fit for this taxpayer’s needs.
Wrentham resident Robert Poklemba volunteered last year.
“My son participates in some of the events they have at the library,” says Poklemba, who noticed flyers looking for volunteers. “I figured if I was going to be waiting for him to finish his stuff, I was going to volunteer and pull my weight.”
Although Poklemba’s background is in customer service, he says the IRS training, mostly online, taught him a lot. “It was several hours of study to pass the certification tests,” says Poklemba, but the IRS provides so much supporting documentation that “you could read for a year and not cover all the material they offer.”
Poklemba is back again this year to volunteer, because “it just feels really nice to help people. Somebody that would have had to pay money to do taxes, we’re able to help them out for free. It’s really great the IRS offers the program and the software, which is similar to the commercially available applications out there. We’re able to walk folks through who may not be able to afford it. It’s really nice, and nice to connect with other people in the community as well.
Gousie and Poklemba both laud the support the IRS provides.
“There’s always two sets of eyes, if there’s any question,” says Poklemba. “There’s collaboration.”
“You are never alone at the site,” says Gousie, “There’s always going to be someone that can help you there if you have a question.”
The Franklin Public Library also offers information and links, under Adult Services, dedicated to the tax program, on its website.
The program keeps taxpayer information strictly confidential.
“We run our site on an encrypted Wi-Fi connection through the town, and all of our preparers only have access to the preparation software while the site is open,” says Gousie, adding, “No personally identifying information is left at the library. You take it all with you, and we file electronically, or we’ll give you what you need to mail it yourself. … We are not allowed to discuss any information on who, where, or what was processed at the site. The most information we can divulge is a ballpark number of returns we did.”
Gousie says the response to the VITA tax assistance program has been positive, and the library has improved the process this year.
“Last year, we didn’t get to the intake until after the appointment,” says Gousie. That yielded a number of cases beyond the scope of the site. This year, the intake will occur before the first appointment, she explains.
“That way,” she says, “every (hour-long) tax preparation appointment is guaranteed to be for someone we can help.”
To volunteer for the library’s tax assistance program, contact [email protected].