February 9, 2016

SUNY Cortland volunteers provide free tax prep help

taxJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Gary Johns, left, of Cortland, gets tax preparation help from SUNY Cortland business major Miguel Polanco on Saturday at the Access to Independence facility in Cortland.

Staff Reporter

Filing income taxes can be frustrating, but a group of residents and SUNY Cortland students involved with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program are attempting to make tax preparation just a bit easier.
The Cortland Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program was created in 2005 and supported by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County to help residents get free, one-on-one assistance with tax preparation. Volunteers travel to locations across the county to provide help. On Saturday, they were assisting local residents at the Access to Independence headquarters on North Main Street in Cortland.
“We do tax preparations for individuals for relatively straightforward taxes,” site coordinator Raimona Rowe said. “Basically it’s small businesses without depreciation, individuals with jobs, straightforward retirement (and) anyone making under $54,000 a year. We’ll do prior year returns as well.”
The process takes about a half hour, during which IRS-certified staff will help file tax returns and answer taxpayers’ questions.
VITA members helped residents file 600 tax returns last year, and Rowe said she hopes even more people will seek tax preparation services this year. Residents are encouraged to schedule appointments in advance, but walk-ins can be accommodated at the Access to Independence site.
“On Saturdays and Sundays, we’ll encourage people to walk in in the afternoon because it’s kind of slower,” Rowe said. “They show up with their stuff, they do that much (and) I’m going to try to get them in.”
As much of a convenience as it might be for residents, the VITA program serves another useful purpose: about 20 SUNY Cortland students get a chance to volunteer.
One of those students was Joseph Constantino, a senior business economics major from Medford in Suffolk County. He was a quality assurance leader Saturday morning, making sure things went smoothly.
The VITA program is a resume builder, he said, and helped him land a job interview — and job offer — with Wells Fargo in Syracuse. He starts after graduation this spring.
But that’s not the only reason he got involved. Constantino said most of the people he assisted were appreciative.
“Some people come in ... and they love that we’re volunteering and saving them so much money,” he said. “All of them were so thankful and happy that we’re doing this. It’s just a good feeling.”
On Monday evening, Cortland resident Evelyn Hall was filing her taxes with volunteers at the VITA site in the Cortland Works Carreer Center.
Hall said she has been using the free service for the last five years and that she keeps coming back because she finds the atmosphere comfortable and people willing to help.
Hall said as she nears retirement, having a service like the VITA program is ideal at a time when every dollar counts in her budget.
“As you get older, you really don’t make as much money,” she said. “Now I’m closer to retirement so people like me need this type of setting.”
Rowe said she hopes to see the VITA program improve, adding that she is always looking for more volunteers.
“We’re trying to provide a good service. That’s the whole point,” she said. “If people think they can do that better, they are more than welcome to come help. I think this is something the community could do and make work by themselves.”


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