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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Free tax assistance with VITA

Thirty trained and certified volunteers available to help community members file taxes

An illustration of two people filing taxes together. With the new free online Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site, tax help is available from the comfort of home this year.
An illustration of two people filing taxes together. With the new free online Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site, tax help is available from the comfort of home this year. // Illustration by Sophia Lindstrom

By Gaia Crans

After the pandemic interrupted their services in the middle of the 2020 tax season, the coordinator, volunteers and faculty of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program now have the program up and running to help low-income and undocumented taxpayers in the Whatcom community.

Ruby LeClair, this year’s VITA coordinator and president of both Western Washington University’s Theta Phi Chapter Beta Alpha Psi, and Western’s Professional Women’s Association, said that for the first time the program is now 100% virtual.

“Ruby and I were working tirelessly in the fall and over Christmas break to get everything set up,” said Steve Smith, the VITA faculty advisor and associate accounting professor. 

VITA services are available until April 15, Monday through Wednesday, from 4- 8 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. -12 p.m. Services are closed during Western’s finals week and during spring break, March 15-29. 

The program has 30 volunteers to give one-on-one help with filing taxes, LeClair said. 

Volunteers like Kaitlyn Kiteley, a senior accounting major at Western, go through rigorous training courses and have to take three exams — intake, ethics and an advanced exam — to become qualified by IRS standards.

After volunteers help the taxpayer file their taxes, which Kiteley said takes around 30 to 40 minutes, the files are reviewed by a second volunteer and then sent to the IRS, where the forms are usually processed within 24 hours. 

“Everybody should be utilizing our program because it’s free, we’re super accessible for students and you can get your taxes done right away,” Kiteley said.

For people who are unable to scan their documents at home or do not have access to adequate technology, Smith said he will be at the campus services building Tuesdays from 4:30-5:30 p.m. for document intake.  

Kiteley said last year, taxpayers could just walk on to campus, fill out forms on paper and work with volunteers in person. She said there wasn’t the same worry about technical or security issues that they have to worry about with everything being online. 

To keep all taxpayer’s information safe, VITA is using the program TaxSlayer, LeClair said. Western’s VITA program has also been one of the 100 sites approved for the IRS’s Scanned Document Program, which makes scanning and uploading information easier and more secure. 

“I like giving back,” Kiteley said. “It’s super easy and it’s like only a couple hours out of my weeks, but it makes a huge difference for some people who can’t either afford to have a TurboTax program or don’t understand how to do taxes.”

With Whatcom Community College and AARP not doing tax assistance this year, LeClair said they’re expecting to get a bigger influx of people.

“A lot of the people who come to our site have never used Zoom before, so that’s a big challenge,” LeClair said.

The pandemic stimulus money is administered through the IRS, so if someone has never filed a tax return then they wouldn’t get it, Smith said. He said this is interesting because the IRS tells you not to file if you make below a certain income, depending on your status, so lower income people who need the stimulus checks are not receiving them. That’s been a real motivator to get the VITA program online, Smith said.

The program can also help undocumented individuals safetly file their taxes. 

“There is a very strict firewall,” Smith said. “The IRS does not report any of that information to ICE or anyone else.”

Smith said that undocumented undividuals can bring their Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, rather than a social security number. 

“It’s kind of interesting because when someone who’s here undocumented there’s kind of a perverse incentive because they want those people to get taxes into the system although they never get them back in any way shape or form,” Smith said.More information about the VITA program can be found at their site.

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