Long Island residents can now take advantage of an expanded free virtual tax preparation service that may help them keep more money in their pockets this tax season.
The Health & Welfare Council of Long Island, a nonprofit umbrella organization, has been offering free tax-prep services for the past four years. In response to increasing demand in filing assistance, the group’s president and CEO Rebecca Sanin said the decision to roll out and expand efforts was critical.
At a press conference Monday in Riverhead, Ms. Sanin, with the backing of local elected officials, announced that the free virtual Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is now being offered at 17 sites across Nassau and Suffolk counties and on the East End. VITA is a national IRS-sponsored electronic program designed to help taxpayers file state and federal returns. To qualify, individuals must earn under $55,000 annually.
Both HWCLI and the Town of Riverhead have seen success with the program since its inception.
“In 2018, HWCLI’s virtual VITA program assisted clients in receiving more than $400,000 in federal and state tax refunds and more than $112,000 in Earned Income Tax Credits,” Ms. Sanin said. “We estimate that our clients collectively saved nearly $200,000 in tax preparation fees.”
Riverhead Town Councilwoman Catherine Kent, also in attendance, said the roughly 100 Riverhead residents who took advantage of the VITA program last year saved a combined $30,000 in tax preparation fees, calling the effort “a shining example of how community-based organizations can work together to help those most vulnerable and at-risk in our area.”
The increased demand comes from the recently altered tax code, the changes of which were made effective in 2018 and will remain in effect until tax year 2025. Under the Trump administration, a significant limit has been placed on the State and Local Tax deduction, while the standard deduction has sharply increased, such that Long Islanders previously accustomed to larger refunds are receiving less or learning that they in fact owe the government money.
“People are feeling anxious about a potential future government shutdown,” Ms. Sanin said during the conference at Riverhead Free Library, one of eight libraries that now offer virtual VITA services. She highlighted the many “particularly predatory” pop-up companies that lure taxpayers this time of year – especially in low-income communities – offering little aside from false hope and empty promises to those who see refund season as a lifeline.
“Our high cost of living means that many of our neighbors are struggling to make ends meet,” Ms. Sanin said. “Tax time is often the one time of year that many of our neighbors are able to catch up on bills or perhaps put away some savings … It is more important than ever that we do everything that we can to ensure that the hard-earned dollars that Long Islanders earn stay in their pockets and get reinvested in the local community.”
At any of the 17 locations, individuals can call ahead to schedule an estimated 20-minute appointment. Additional information, including a full listing of VITA sites can be found online at hwcli.com/virtual-vita-2019 or by calling 516-483-1110.
Photo caption: Officials posed for a photo at the press conference Monday in Riverhead (Mahreen Khan photo)