<p>ATLANTA, Ga – The IRS, long seen by many Americans as a notorious and heartless agency, is seeking credit unions' help in an effort which could put more money in the pockets of low income and middle income Americans and bring more members to credit unions, particularly community development credit unions. The IRS calls its effort the Voluntary Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, an outreach which offers low and middle income tax payers free help with tax preparation and, in many cases, education on previous unknown or unused benefits. Low and middle income community residents who take advantage of the program can discover they are eligible for thousands of dollars in federal tax benefits. When they do so, the credit union that has helped them make the discovery can offer them a place to put their windfall and education about it as well. "We know that many low and middle income families have no idea about programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit," said Beverly Thomas, Senior Policy Analyst for the IRS and program manager. "We see credit unions as a primary way of reaching those folks. A family can find out they are due up to $4,000 more than they thought," Thomas said. Thomas said that, had there been more time this year, the IRS would have especially sought out credit unions that have the volunteers and physical space to actually host a VITA center. But since so much time has already passed, the IRS will seek to introduce credit unions to VITA centers near them. Credit unions that contact Thomas at [email protected] can expect to be put in contact with a local IRS official who, in turn, will introduce then to local VITA centers. Once involved, a credit union will be asked to participate in a number of ways, Thomas said. Next year, when there is more time, they will probably be asked to provide volunteers to be trained in IRS tax preparation, Thomas said. This year they might be asked to provide credit counseling, financial education and other basic financial information, she added. Of course, participating credit unions can offer their own membership and services to people who have not only discovered they have more money than they realized a few minutes before, but also that they have little idea of how to deal with it responsibly. "It [the program] was definitely an eye-opener for us, seeing how many people were eligible for money they never even realized they might be" said Suzette Cowell, CEO of the Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union, a five year old, $2.4 million community development credit union in Toledo, Ohio with 4,000 members. Cowell, whose credit union was the first to have gotten up and running with the program, reported that the credit union provided all the volunteers for the local VITA site, and even the site's location once they decided the young credit union's space would be insufficient. They managed to arrange for space in a nearby community center, and credit union volunteers are on hand to staff the center three or three and one half hours per day, four days a week and Saturday's by appointment. "I have everybody helping on the site," Cowell said, laughing, "including members of my board of directors. Everybody is getting involved." The training necessary to serve in a site is significant, Cowell said. The IRS provides the training and then an examination on the training that all the volunteers have to pass, but the sacrifice of going through the training is worth it, Cowell stressed. "If you think about it, this sort of outreach is what credit unions are all about, people helping people," she said, "and the credit union showing that we care about our members, about helping them." Cowell reported that many of the people whose taxes credit union volunteers prepared went on to become credit union members and to take advantage of additional financial education that the credit union provided. Thomas stressed that although the program got started relatively late this year, the IRS considered it an ongoing effort that she hoped would eventually convince ever-greater numbers of credit unions to participate. In the two weeks since the NCUA first let credit unions know about the program she reported ten credit unions had contacted her about getting involved. In a recent letter to credit unions about the shared effort, NCUA Board Chairman Dennis Dollar touted the benefits to credit unions. "Credit union involvement in the VITA initiative can be rewarding. This opportunity provides goodwill through member benefits, Continuing Professional Education credits for qualified volunteers who receive VITA training, free tax preparation service for members, and free electronic filing with direct deposit options at credit unions," he wrote.</p>

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