HOUSTON — If credit unions involved in the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program are looking to build long-term relationships, having a retention plan in place well before tax season ends is key.

A representative from a New York-based credit union offered that suggestion at a VITA session this weekend during the African American Credit Union Coalition’s annual meeting.

The number of credit unions that have signed on with VITA increased from 64 in 2004 to 246 in 2007, according to Debra Chandler, senior tax analyst with the IRS’ Stakeholder, Partnerships, Education and Communications division. For the 2007 tax season, credit unions prepared 18,000 returns which amounted to $8.2 million in earned income tax credits and $3.2 million in child tax credits.

“Be sure to have a retention program in place for VITA users,” the attendee said. “We had people coming and going, almost like indirect lending. We want to keep them as members.”

The New York CU sent out a welcome letter that featured their rates to those that it helped prepare returns for. Chandler agreed with retention plans saying part of VITA’s success for credit unions is linked to the ability to grow deposits and add new accounts.

Meanwhile, IRS is working with Discover and Chase that would allow VITA tax filers to put their refunds on debit cards, Chandler said. A pilot is currently underway to test the transactions. Any future deals would require the card companies to not charge any fees. However, if fees were assessed, the maximum would be $10.