Washtenaw United: VITA offering free tax preparation assistance to qualified Washtenaw County residents
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
ABOUT PATRICK CORNELIUS:
Patrick spent 2 years in AmeriCorps in Michigan before joining Capital Area United Way to oversee the VITA Program in Washtenaw County along with the United Way of Washtenaw County office.
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Governor Whitmer's recently released state budget includes an increase to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), one of the best tools we have to put money in the pockets of working people and reduce child poverty.
The proposed increase of the EITC, which functions as a tax cut for working families, would deliver an average combined tax refund of $3,000 to 730,000 Michiganders, helping them pay the bills and put food on the table.
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David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and it's that time of year again. The income tax deadline is April 18th, and there are some changes to consider this year for those of you who've yet to file. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. Right now, there's an ongoing push to increase the earned income tax credit in Michigan to further help those on the lower end of the income scale. Many of whom need assistance in simply paying to have their tax returns completed and filed here in Washtenaw County. That help is available through the United Way of Washtenaw Counties VITA Program. VITA stands for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, and it's been vital in helping a great number of Washtenaw County residents. Our guest today oversees that program. Patrick Cornelius is a Community Investment Associate for Washtenaw County, and thank you so much for the time today, Patrick.
Patrick Cornelius: Thank you for having me. I'm just thrilled to be here.
David Fair: I don't know a lot of folks who look forward to tax season. Given what you do, do you?
Patrick Cornelius: Yes and no. The thing that I look forward to is being able to actually work with, you know, any of our clients or taxpayers who need assistance, being able to work with the, you know, roughly 35 volunteers who help make the program function. Those things are wonderful and a huge part of why I love doing this work. The only part that can be difficult is--you know, any taxpayer is going to know this is--sometimes rules and tax laws can change year to year. Sometimes, communication between the IRS and individual taxpayers can either take a long time or sometimes be unclear. So, there's just a natural amount of stress and a whole bunch of questions that can come up every tax season.
David Fair: You aren't kidding. But to get back to serving the people, what exactly is the mission in putting forth the VITA program here in Washtenaw County?
Patrick Cornelius: So, our goal is to help build, you know, healthy, strong, and financially secure families. For VITA, the financial security aspect is a big portion of that. And there's kind of two things that we really focus on each tax season. And number one is we are a completely free service. We want to do our best to help, you know, all the hundreds of taxpayers who come to us every single year to avoid paying for any tax preparation fees. Additionally, we want to make sure people are getting the largest refunds possible--a wide variety of tax credits, both at the federal and state of Michigan level, that, you know, not everyone is an expert in or will know how to file those year to year, especially when, like I mentioned, tax laws and regulations can change on a year-to-year basis. So, with our expertise, we're very well-positioned to one, get taxes done for people here in the county for free, as well as trying to get them the absolute best tax refund possible.
David Fair: How many people do you anticipate helping through the course of this tax season?
Patrick Cornelius: So, we still have just a handful of people coming in as we wrap up appointments over the next week, so it looks like we're going to be between five and 600 for this year. You know, just for people we've been able to see in person at one of our sites, it's a lot of work for, for the volunteers and for myself, but it's work that needs to be done and it really provides a huge benefit to everyone who comes on through. The gratitude that every single client shows, you know, they always let us know how appreciative they are of the work we're doing, it really does make it all worth it, as well as knowing, you know, that's money that's going directly back into our community, into the hands of people who need it.
David Fair: Washtenaw United and a pretax deadline conversation with Washtenaw County Community Investment Associate Patrick Cornelius continues on 89 one WEMU. The pandemic changed so much in our lives over the past few years, including the way you had to help some of the folks in the community. Is there anything else that has had an impact on how tax returns are filed this new year?
Patrick Cornelius: In the early days of the pandemic, we were fully virtual and have been kind of gradually shifting back to in-person, sort of where we are now and going forward, which is approaching normal. I think some of the biggest changes we've seen towards, you know, how taxes are filed is there are actually still a number of specific tax laws and provisions that were passed during 2020 that we're actually still able to use to benefit taxpayers. One thing that we've been able to do is a provision that existed for this past two tax years is holding earned income tax credit look back. It's no secret that it's been more difficult for almost all of us to be able to work over these past few years, and the earned income tax credit is one that's tied to being able to work throughout the year. What we're allowed to do is to go back to somebody's 2018 tax year, look at the earned income they had before COVID, and we could actually use that to potentially get them a larger income credit, both for this current tax year in 2021, and we were able to do it in 2020 as well. This is one of the first times the earned income tax credit has really been expanded for what we would call single filers. So, taxpayers who are not married and actually especially for those who do not have any kids, the earned income tax credit could actually be much more beneficial for those taxpayers this year compared to previous years, which is a great change.
David Fair: And is there is anything similar with the child care tax credit that has impacted so many lives over the years?
Patrick Cornelius: Towards the end of 2021, a lot of taxpayers were eligible to receive an advance on this year's child tax credit payments. So, what that looked like were monthly payments that went out to taxpayers who had children younger than 17 for the final six months of 2021. And there is an amount per child based on age, and that monthly benefit was really great, and there were plenty of studies and statistics on what that did across the U.S. to reduce child poverty just by adding several hundred dollars a month into households that really needed it. Additionally, one thing I think a lot of people didn't expect was that just because there is an advance last year, there's still child tax credit money to claim for those taxpayers as part of this current year return. And, right now, that exists as a single year provision. But it's something that we absolutely have been able to do to try to make it clear to the taxpayers right away what they receive last year and let them know that actually that same amount is coming again as part of the tax return. That's just a single year provision and the tax law that was passed last year. There is a big push among certain members of Congress to reinstate the, you know, the advance child tax credit payments again, looking for it for next year to kind of keep that benefit going forward.
David Fair: But that remains to be seen, right? This is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Patrick Cornelius, who oversees the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program for the United Way of Washtenaw County. And based on what you've seen to this point and all of the additions that you have discussed to this point, are refunds on average bigger?
Patrick Cornelius: For this year, yes. And again, the two biggest things are because of the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit. I've been doing taxes for a handful of years here in Washtenaw County and my own for a while longer. But this is the first year I've seen so many five-figure refunds, you know, 10, 12, 15 and even $20,000 at certain points. And, you know, I haven't even mentioned there's other tax credits, you know, for any taxpayers who were unable to file taxes for a few years or maybe who didn't have reasons beforehand. There's still potential for them to go back and claim through what's called the Recovery Rebate Credit. They had missed any of their stimulus payments, you know, over the past few years. All of these things can sometimes combined to really bring in significant amounts of money for taxpayers and families who need it.
David Fair: And, of course, not everyone is ready to file by the April 18th deadline. And, in those instances, can the VITA volunteers help for an extension?
Patrick Cornelius: Yes, we'll be operating through September 30th, and that actually aligns through Michigan's deadline for the Home Heating Credit, one of the more common state credits we see for lower income taxpayers for filing an extension. We see that mostly necessary if there's a taxpayer who maybe is not ready and maybe would have a balance due potentially or if they've had balances due in the past. That's something that, with an extension, they can avoid late fees or penalties. For a lot of taxpayers who traditionally just receive a refund, they can still file an extension, but there's also a refund not reduced, just for filing after April 18th. And this is something that we know work of taxpayers on a case-by-case basis, especially if they know there's a piece of documentation or some circumstance they're waiting on, you know, something that they think to be finalized, you know, before not everything's going to be done by April 18th. I mean, we still have clients who have been getting paperwork, you know, receiving things in the mail just over the past week. So, this, unfortunately, happened to a significant number of people this year.
David Fair: I know that a lot of folks hearing this today may think, "Hey, I would really like to utilize the VITA services." Who exactly is eligible?
Patrick Cornelius: The absolute biggest, you know, eligibility rule for VITA is we are looking for either taxpayers or families who earn $57,000 or less throughout 2021. There are a couple of other smaller questions for that potentially come up. Some of those were, unfortunately, not allowed to to file taxes for anyone who had declared bankruptcy last year. And, also, if the majority of someone's income is either through owning a farm or rental income from renting property, those are going to be bigger things that we that we cannot do. Most other situations, we're more than happy to handle. And if once we are able to get someone, it turns out something is more complicated or maybe outside of the scope of VITA, we do try to work with taxpayers, you know, either who can help them or where else could they go.
David Fair: Thank you so much for the time and sharing the information today, Patrick. I appreciate it. That is Patrick Cornelius, community investment associate for Washtenaw County, overseeing the VITA program for the United Way of Washtenaw County. For more information and links to assistance, visit our web page at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and HD One Ypsilanti.
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