Eligible Berkshire residents can get free tax help through VITA program

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NORTH ADAMS — As a seasonal worker, Diane Miranda doesn't have a lot of money to throw around.

So instead of paying an accounting firm $300 to file her taxes, she's taking advantage of the free income tax preparation program offered by Berkshire Community Action Council.

"At no cost, you get all your taxes done, and you get your whole refund back," she said. "But when you pay $300 for just a regular tax return, half your refund is gone already, so it's pretty decent that they do this."

Now that tax time is here, families who make less than $54,000 are eligible for free income tax help through the Voluntary Income Tax Assistance (VITA). Through the IRS program, certified volunteers help locals fill out their tax returns and file them with the state and the U.S. Treasury.

The program is administered locally by Berkshire Community Action Council in Pittsfield and North Adams.

Clients can call and set up an appointment to do their taxes during specific dates and time slots, according to BCAC Deputy Director Bryan House. In Pittsfield, appointments can be set for Monday and Wednesday nights or Saturday mornings. In North Adams, the service is available on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings.

The last day to file taxes this year is Tuesday, April 17.

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All volunteers in the VITA program are certified by the IRS. In Northern Berkshire, many of the volunteers are students and faculty from Williams College. In fact, VITA was begun locally when Paula Consolini, director of the Williams College Center for Learning in Action, brought the idea to BCAC officials.

Consolini said she pitched the VITA program to several agencies in 2005. The first few declined, but BCAC agreed without hesitation in the Northern Berkshire area.

There were Williams College students willing to get certified and volunteer. Several faculty members also helped out. A couple of years later, BCAC expanded the program to Pittsfield.

"We served about 80 people that first year," Consolini said. "And then from there we never stopped. And it's been a real help. A lot of these folks would have to pay what for them is a lot of money for tax help — they'd lose a major chunk of their refund to tax preparers."

Last year, House noted, the program served roughly 650 people, including some with special needs. And for some of them, BCAC personnel are able to put them in touch with other programs or services that might give them help with other issues, like the cost of heat or food aid.

Miranda noted that when she gets her taxes done, a team of three volunteers help her, then a supervisor checks the work. And when they submit the return, she gets the entire refund.

"That means a lot when you're trying to pay bills," she said. "It really helps to get all of it back."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com.


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