2018-02-13 / News

Delaware Otsego CA$H Coalition

By Sara Andros

The lure of a quick income tax refund can be almost too much to resist for many living paycheck to paycheck. There are television commercials that extoll the benefits of getting an advance on a refund, and many tax preparation businesses advertise that they can get the maximum refund. What they don’t explain is that comes at a cost. Often tax preparers charge hundreds of dollars to prepare a simple return.

The Delaware Otsego CA$H (Creating Assets, Savings and Hope) Coalition would like to help individuals keep the money they would normally pay to have their taxes prepared by promoting the use of the My Free Taxes website or local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites.

The VITA site provides free tax preparation and filing for anyone who made $54,000 or less in 2017. My Free Taxes, which can be accessed through the Delaware Otsego United Way website, offers a program through H & R Block. Using this site will allow any household making less than $66,000 in 2017 to file both state and federal taxes for free. Refunds will be direct-deposited within a couple of days. The income caps that they have established make these services available for both low-income and middle-class wage earners.

My Free Taxes was initially initiated to benefit individuals with disabilities, but later expanded to include low- and no-income individuals. The Chenango-Delaware- Otsego (CDO) Workforce was selected as one of ten national pilot sites to initiate a facilitated self-assisted (FSA) service. In the first year of the program, only 45 returns were filed using My Free Taxes, but that jumped to 182 the following year.

There have been CASH coalitions in other parts of the state for over 15 years, but the Delaware Otsego CA$H Coalition has only been active since 2013. A group of local non-profit groups, the United Way, the Internal Revenue Service and New York State Tax and Finance Agency formed the group in an effort to increase financial stability for individuals with low or no income, or a disability.

Promoting free tax preparation is not the only goal of the Delaware Otsego CA$H Coalition. The coalition believes that financial education is a key component in helping individuals better their circumstances. Learning to make good decisions regarding tax refunds and establishing savings and checking accounts benefits not only the individual, but the community.

The coalition has partnered with several local banks to provide programs. Citizens Bank provided classes on Earn Income Tax Credits (EITC), budgeting and saving. Sidney Federal Credit Union (SFCU), State Employees Federal Credit Union (SEFCU) and Key Bank have supported the coalition in many ways. Wayne National and other banks have also expressed an interest in becoming involved.

The CA$H Coalition hopes to develop a structure with the partners to support Individual Development Accounts (IDA). These accounts enable low-income families to save for homes, college educations or small business startups. Often funds are matched to encourage additional saving. At this time there are no IDA’s in this area, but the coalition continues to explore possible avenues to establish these types of savings accounts.

When the Delaware Otsego CA$H coalition was first developed, its initial plan of action was to establish VITA sites in Delaware and Otsego Counties. The AARP and Offices for the Aging have tax preparation sites in several locations in both counties, but elderly residents take priority. VITA sites make free tax preparation services available to a wider segment of the population.

To initiate the VITA program in this area, volunteer tax preparers and Site Coordinators needed to be recruited and trained, and sites needed to be found. Thanks to considerable help from Jeff Weinell, a professor at SUNY Oneonta, sites have been up and running in Otsego County for several years.

Weinell contacted students in accounting programs and developed a path with SUNY Oneonta where students receive class credits for training and becoming volunteer tax preparers. He has been a tireless Site Coordinator from the onset and has offered his experience and expertise to other Site Coordinators.

Students at SUNY Delhi volunteered to help with FSA services and assisted individuals in applying on the My Free taxes website at the college and the SFCU branch in Delhi. A VITA site was established at United Ministries in Delhi last year, but unfortunately no one utilized it. It has been an ongoing struggle to get the word out about these programs. Information has been distributed to area agencies and flyers have been placed in holiday gift baskets. The CA$H Coalition is not giving up on establishing VITA sites in Delaware County, so they continue to research locations that county residents would utilize.

The Delaware Otsego CA$H coalition is spearheaded by the United Way of Delaware and Otsego Counties. Executive Director Kimberly Lorraine said, “United Way fights for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in our community; supporting the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is one way we make an impact and Live United.”

The United Way has been assisted by CDO Workforce, Delaware Opportunities, Opportunities for Otsego, Catholic Charities, Fidelis Care, the O’Connor Foundation, the First United Methodist Church in Oneonta, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), SUNY Oneonta and SUNY Delhi along with the aforementioned banks and the numerous volunteer tax preparers and assistants. The saying is that “It takes a village”, but in this case, it takes two counties working together to improve the financial stability of their residents.

For more information or to make an appointment to get taxes prepared contact Catholic Charities at 607-432-0061. Taxes will be prepared at the First United Methodist Church at 66 Chestnut Street in Oneonta from January through April. The hours this year will be Wednesday evenings from 5 until 8:30 p.m. and Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m.

If interested in using the My Free Taxes service, CDO Workforce has computers at all their locations designated for tax preparation, with staff available to assist. Facilitators are available at SUNY Delhi Sanford Hall, room 148 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Saturdays from Feb. 3 until March 10 to help individuals complete their taxes online.

AARP will also be doing free tax preparation in Oneonta and Cooperstown. Call 607-547-4232 for an appointment.

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