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Free tax prep nets many happy returns in Pinellas

Milton and Elisheba Weathers pray with two of their four children, Philip, 15, and Joyhope, 11, before dinner. The couple opted for free tax preparation for the first time this year. “We’re supposed to be getting back $2,000,’’ she said. “The most we have gotten back is $62.”

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Milton and Elisheba Weathers pray with two of their four children, Philip, 15, and Joyhope, 11, before dinner. The couple opted for free tax preparation for the first time this year. “We’re supposed to be getting back $2,000,’’ she said. “The most we have gotten back is $62.”

Braids draping her back, Elisheba Weathers bustled from kitchen to dining table dishing out whole wheat spaghetti, salad, steamed broccoli and slices of bread to her husband and two youngest children in their modest Childs Park home.

Her husband, Milton, 55, said grace, thanking God for his blessings and for Elisheba's cooking. Unsaid at that moment was the family's gratitude for the much-needed income tax refund coming their way.

Elisheba, 50, was laid off recently. Even with her unemployment benefits and Milton's two jobs as a maintenance worker, it's a strain to keep up with the mortgage and other expenses. So when it was time to do their taxes this year, they turned to a free tax service offered by the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program in Pinellas County. Nearly 2,700 others did the same.

Community advocates are pleased. They say efforts to encourage low- and moderate-income residents to take advantage of the free income tax preparation service netted $4.5 million in refunds for Pinellas County residents and, by extension, the area's economy. Of that sum, $1.7 million came from federal earned income tax credits, a benefit for low- and moderate-income workers that offsets the payroll and income taxes they pay.

Nationally, in 2007, 23.1 million eligible families and individuals claimed earned income tax credits worth $44.6 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Cherin L. Stover, coordinator of the Wealth Building Coalition of Pinellas County, which administered 12 VITA sites from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg in partnership with the Internal Revenue Service, said the economy sent new people to the program this year.

"We had people coming into the sites who had normally paid to have their taxes done but said that this year they simply could not afford it,'' she said.

Four IRS-trained workers at the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center in St. Petersburg prepared more than 800 returns, with $780,968 in earned income tax credits, the highest for any free tax site in the Tampa Bay area. At Daystar Life Center, a site for the first time this year, more than 100 low-income clients were served.

Still, Stover of the Wealth Building Coalition said, even though most recent IRS figures indicate that 60 percent of workers in Pinellas County qualify for an earned income tax credit, only 25 percent claim it. Of those who did, 46 percent spent money for tax preparation and to take out high-interest refund-anticipation loans.

Until this year, with three jobs between them, the Weatherses paid to have their taxes done.

"Because I got laid off, I'm trying to pinch pennies everywhere I can,'' Elisheba Weathers said. "I said, even if we only get $100, let's go where we do it for free and at least we'll have a $100. That's what led us to go to Daystar.''

The economy might have pushed other penny-pinching Americans into doing their own taxes this year. In a recent release, the IRS said that for the first time, more than 30 million tax returns were filed from home computers, up 19.3 percent from the same time last year.

The decision to take advantage of the free tax preparation service paid off for Milton and Elisheba Weathers.

"We're supposed to be getting back $2,000,'' she said. "The most we have gotten back is $62."

She and her husband credit Andrea Dufresne, 23, a first year student at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, for the windfall. They say Dufresne made sure they got education credits for their college student daughter and child credits for the youngest of their four children. Last year's $62,000 income was too high for them to get earned income tax credit.

Nevertheless, the couple is ecstatic about their refund.

Dufresne, whom they described as "caring and concerned,'' said the volunteer work counted toward her pro bono requirements for law school, but that it wasn't the reason she signed up to work with the program.

"I wanted to do something to help other people. It was something that I really enjoyed,'' she said, adding that when she learned that the Daystar tax site was short of volunteers, she encouraged a classmate to help also.

Jane Trocheck Walker, executive director at Daystar, said the tax site helped mostly very poor people, including some of the 800 clients who use the center as a mailing address. They are people who either have no stable address or live in neighborhoods where their mail is not safe, she said.

Stover, of the Wealth Building Coalition, said that as a first-time site, Daystar was a success.

"They were able to reach people we were not able to reach in the past,'' she said.

Many had an adjusted gross income of about $15,000.

"We really did reach those in most economic need,'' she said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Fast Facts

Pinellas dividends

2,697 Tax returns prepared at free tax preparation sites

$1.7 million Earned income tax credits, up $131,800 from 2008

$740,337 Child tax credits, up $40,737 from 2008

$4.5 million Total refunds, up $500,000-plus from 2008

$404,550 Saved in tax filing fees (based on calculation system used by the Brookings Institution)

Source: Wealth Building Coalition of Pinellas County

Wealth Building Coalition

Established in July 2002 to help eligible residents claim federal earned income tax credit and child credit and to increase economic opportunities and provide financial education. Partners include the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, the IRS, FDIC, Federal Reserve Bank, Bank of America, Wachovia, United Way of Tampa Bay, the National Disability Institute and WorkNet Pinellas. Go to wbcpc.org or call (727) 321-9444.



Free tax prep nets many happy returns in Pinellas 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 16, 2009 4:30am]
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