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Hub group works to help residents claim tax credits

Jin-ah Kim | 2/26/2009, 4:33 a.m.

It’s 7:15 p.m. on a Thursday night in February, and at the intersection of Washington and Ruggles streets, the Roxbury Resource Center is packed.

Inside the center, five people look at Form 1040s reflected on their computer monitor screens, crunching numbers on their keyboards as they sift through reams of papers. A dozen people wait for their names to be called. One, a weary-eyed woman, comforts her irritated young children.

These days, scenes like this are commonplace at the Roxbury Resource Center, one of the 24 free tax preparation sites that are part of the Boston Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Coalition, which kicked off its sixth tax season last month.

Originally approved in 1975 to offset the burden of social security taxes and provide an incentive to work, the EITC is a federal and state tax credit available to many low- and moderate-income working families and individuals. To qualify, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Web site, taxpayers must meet certain requirements and file a tax return, even if they did not earn enough money to be obligated to file a tax return.

Those interested in finding out if they meet the requirements can call the coalition at 617-918-5275, or visit www.bostontaxhelp.org.

This year, residents who qualify for the EITC can receive up to $4,536 in refunds. But, as Mayor Thomas M. Menino recently noted, if eligible citizens don’t claim the funds, everybody loses.

“When working families do not claim the EITC, which they have worked hard for and are entitled to, money is lost to the entire community that could go towards job creation and boosting the economic activity of the whole city,” said Menino in a statement announcing the opening of the coalition’s two-dozen free tax prep sites.

According to the 2007 Boston EITC Campaign Taxpayer Data Report, 8,877 taxpayers received, on average, a federal refund of $1,514 and a state refund of $363 through the coalition last year. The average combined earned income credit (EIC) was $1,692.

“Last year, our free tax prep sites returned almost $15 million in federal and state refunds to families across the city,” Menino said. “Ultimately, the EITC benefits all Boston neighborhoods and results in greater economic opportunity.”

Jazmin Vasquez of Roxbury is one Boston resident taking advantage of the benefit. Vasquez, a receptionist at Massachusetts Housing Partnership with a 10-month-old daughter and a 3-year-old son, is eligible for the EITC, which this year will account for about half of her total refund.

Vasquez has filed her taxes for free at the Roxbury Resource Center in each of the past four years, in part because the center is “very convenient.”

“I just take the No. 1 bus to get there, and the hours are perfect, just after work,” she said during a phone interview.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s been very pleased with the results.

“I love it,” she said. “Especially when I receive my check.”

This year’s experience should only add to Vasquez’ love — after filing her taxes at the resource center last Thursday, she said she expects to get back approximately $8,000 from the government this year.

The one downside, Vasquez said, was the roughly two-and-a-half hours she had to wait for the service.

“Considering it’s free, I am not complaining,” she said. “But, if there could be more volunteers, that would be nice.”

A shortage of volunteers is the primary reason that, while the number of free tax prep sites across the city has increased from 15 to 24, popular sites like the Roxbury Resource Center and the Codman Square Tech Center have struggled to provide prompt service.

Alan Gentle, director and site coordinator at the Roxbury Resource Center, acknowledges the dilemma. During a recent interview, he said his site serves, on average, about 60 people during each of its three weekly walk-in-only sessions, on Mondays and Thursdays from 4-8 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

“Unfortunately, because we are short of staff … the average wait time here is about, I would say, two hours,” Gentle said. “People are arriving at the center one-and-a-half hours early before the starting time. Unfortunately, 30 minutes after the starting time, we are out of capacity.”

And when they get turned away, he added, “people are discouraged.”

“We encourage them to come back or visit other sites, but by that time, they already invested their time,” he said.

Gentle, who participated in the coalition as a tax preparer in 2003 and has served as site manager for the last five years, said that 25 site volunteers — only some of whom come to every session — are insufficient. Yet no volunteer trainings are currently available on the coalition’s Web site.

Gentle said that training sessions start in late November and end in mid-January. During the peak of tax season, from early February through March, he said it is difficult to train new people, although the city may consider holding more trainings.

To attract more volunteers, the coalition opened volunteer opportunities to more age groups. One group is high school students.

“We trained high school students for 16 weeks. They come once a week and they are required to pass the IRS certification test,” Gentle said. “We trained them to learn how to do tax filing [and] further financial literacy skills.”

Stephanie Lorenzo, 15, is one of the high school student volunteers. The Madison Park Technical and Vocational High School student said she works six hours a week at the Roxbury Resource Center site.

“It’s really fun, it’s great to learn how people do their taxes,” she said.

At the end of that Thursday night in February, after all the volunteers and clients were gone, Gentle started to close up the resource center. He said they finished earlier than other days. It was after 9 p.m. — more than an hour beyond the site’s scheduled closing time.

“As a volunteer, you will have an opportunity to enhance yourself. That’s one return,” he said. “The other return is to do community service. It’s time well spent.”

To find out if you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, to find a free tax preparation site near you, or to learn more about the Boston EITC Coalition, visit www.bostontaxhelp.org.