Saving money for low-income residents

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FARMINGTON – There’s money out there to be had, if you only know where to look.

That’s the outlook of the volunteers who run the Franklin County Tax Assistance Program, which prepares taxes for low-income locals, helping them get the biggest refund they’re eligible for.

For free.

Last year, the program served about 100 people, and saved them, in total, well over $100,000, said Frank Engert, who coordinates the program along with local volunteers, employees from nonprofit Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community, and University of Maine at Farmington faculty and students.

Averaged out, each family or individual got about $2,400 back from the government, said Janet Smith, regional manager at Women, Work and Community.

Twice a week, on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings, volunteers – all of whom are certified by the IRS – meet with clients at the UMF Computer Lab, for about an hour each. Returns are filed online, for the most part. Many of the clients – 45 percent last year – were eligible for Earned Income Tax Credit, which essentially gives lower-income families extra money in their return.

“It’s a tax credit that’s established by the government to help low-income working families – to provide them with more access to monies that they can use to try to lift themselves out of poverty,” Smith said. “Many low-income working families just work and work and work and never lift themselves out of poverty.”

Which is precisely why the free volunteer service can be so helpful. Where higher-income families might have the cash to pay for tax preparation, low-income families usually don’t. And those that do often find rapid-refund programs, in which tax preparation companies loan money to clients at a high interest rate, too hard to pass up.

But you don’t have to be very low-income to qualify for the tax credits. Working parents with more than one child are eligible with an income of less than $35,263, and married couples filing jointly with more than one child are eligible with incomes as high as $37,260, according to an IRS flier.

Even single people or couples without children can qualify for EITC. Single, working adults making less than $11,750, and married couples making less than $13,750, both qualify.

If your income is less than $40,000, you could qualify for some part of the program. If you have questions, you are urged to call 1-800-645-9636, ext. 5550

There are also other programs – matching savings accounts that can help you make money for a house, college or a business, for example – that you can find out about from Smith and others, she said.

You know you’re going to get as much as you’re qualified for if you make use of the program, Elizabeth Knowles of New Sharon, said Thursday, while getting her taxes prepared for the fourth year in a row.

“They know all the new rules,” she said. “I feel confident that the people are up-to-date. And they have other people checking over their work.”

It’s fun for the 13 certified volunteers, too. Becky Davis Allen, of Bangor Savings Bank, spent more than 30 hours getting certified this year. But it wasn’t so bad, she said – the bank supports community service and allowed her to do some of the studying from work. And now she’s a certified tax preparer, and gets to help people out.

The UMF students also get a lot of it, Engert said. “First of all, they get hands-on experience working with the public, and direct experience dealing with tax law. They get certified by the IRS – which helps their resumes look good. But the most profound thing is the sense of satisfaction they get from being able to help somebody.”

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