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NEW YORK – With all the numbers tallied – 2,600 patrons served, 595 new credit union members recruited, more than $3 million in tax refunds filed – partners in the 2003 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites organized by the New York City Financial Network Action Consortium (NYCfNAC) are calling the year a success and already are looking to expand operations for the 2004 tax season. “The price of this year is that everyone wants to know what we’re going to do bigger and better next year,” says Peter Bray, executive director of NYCfNAC. “The problem is that `bigger and better’ costs money.” The VITA Program was established by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to offer free help to low-income taxpayers who cannot prepare their taxes on their own. NYCfNAC’s involvement in the program was sparked by interest from its members to promote awareness of the Earned Income Tax Credit – the nation’s largest antipoverty program – and to offer alternatives to high-cost commercial tax preparers. Consortium member Lower East Side People’s FCU (LESPFCU) established a VITA site for the 2002 tax season, and building on LESPFCU’s success for the 2003 tax season, additional sites were opened at Homesteaders FCU in Central Harlem and Union Settlement FCU in East Harlem. LESPFCU also opened a second VITA site in conjunction with the New York City Housing Authority. To assist in the process, NYCfNAC raised $70,000 in funding from various sources, including the National Credit Union Foundation and the New York Community Trust, to cover several expenses: the hiring of VITA site managers, the production and printing of outreach materials, the organization of basic financial education workshops, and the costs associated with recruiting and training volunteers to staff the VITA sites. “As far as I know, this hadn’t been done before,” Bray says. “I’m not aware of any other group of credit unions banding together to do VITA.” Based on the lessons learned from the 2003 tax season, Bray hopes to implement the following program improvements for next year: * Quality control-Hire a full-time, dedicated quality-control manager at each site to review returns prior to filing. This will ensure consistency and eliminate potential mistakes that may occur by rotating volunteers. * Technology support-Recruit IT volunteers or hire consultants to oversee operations and handle emergency situations, such as replacing printers and updating software. * Staff support-Hire a staff person at NYCfNAC dedicated to the VITA program; person would offer support to site managers and oversee financial education efforts. * Expanded training-Work with the IRS and other nonprofits involved in the VITA program to increase training prior to the start of the tax season, including more practice sessions; volunteers currently receive eight hours of IRS training. One goal sure to be met is that of increased outreach. NYCfNAC has added a fourth credit union to its membership-Bushwick Cooperative FCU in Brooklyn-and to participate in the VITA program. [email protected]

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