PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. – In 2022, Norwescap Volunteer Income Tax Assistants (VITA) processed 1,900 tax returns for members of the community. This brought back a whopping $2.3 million for residents in Warren, Sussex and Morris counties.
The VITA initiative is funded by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and supports a unique partnership between Norwescap and the United Way of Northern New Jersey. The program offers free tax help for low- to moderate-income individuals and families, including young adults, adults, senior citizens, persons with disabilities and those with limited English. On average, 3,000 individuals come to Norwescap for assistance with their tax returns each year.
Sue Warga, outreach specialist of Norwescap’s Retired Seniors Volunteer Program (RSVP), said, “We serve the underserved. We get more money into the client’s pocket than they could ever expect.”
People like Tom Haythorn benefit from VITA. Tom has a fixed income on disability and a part-time job through Warren County’s Family Guidance Center for Family Services where he is part of the quality control team cleaning for state contracts such as the local State Police station. He loves his job and feels much empowerment from his supervisor who he reports, “Is someone who treats us like employees instead of patients in the program.” Tom professes that the help VITA provides is a relief when living “paycheck to paycheck” and that any extra he gets back in his tax return will support his regular living expenses, such as purchasing food.
As the 2023 tax season is now upon us, qualified applicants may sign up for no-cost tax return preparations with a Norwescap Volunteer Income Tax Assistant through April 19.
Norwescap recruits VITA volunteers throughout the year. Currently, there are 60 volunteers in Warren, Sussex and Morris counties who prepare returns for the community. Norwescap hopes to add 10 new members to the team for the next tax season.
Marilyn Brooks-Lewis has been giving her time and skills for the past seven years as a VITA with an advanced tax law certification. She was inspired when she found the opportunity posted online and didn’t sweat the extensive training of approximately 15 hours. She was able to fit it in her busy schedule as a full-time accounting and business teacher at Warren County Community College, using the online course to learn at her own pace. She attributes her giving nature of volunteering dating back to when she received a grant that covered all her college costs, including books and boarding. She confesses that she originally had no intention of becoming a teacher but felt a need to “pay it forward” after she graduated college and hasn’t stopped that willingness to help others since.
Norwescap was able to tap into their staff and AmeriCorps members to support this year’s demand for help. Tamara Lopez, an AmeriCorps member who serves as an engagement partner at Norwescap is giving each Friday to help at the Phillipsburg VITA location at 350 Marshall Street. In the first hour the program opened she assisted seven participants reporting, “They are happy to get the help, that people are here for them, and that the service is free! I watch them come in with their tax questions and worries but leave very relaxed and confident that it’s in good hands now. The VITA program is a VITAL program! Even I will be using it this year. Norwescap really is creating opportunities and changing lives”
Warga added, “This is a great program that Norwescap offers to the community at-large. This is what we do. Please join us if you want to help next year. We need schedulers, greeters and preparers.”
How the program works:
In mid-January, Norwescap opens their phone lines for scheduling: 973-784-4900 ext. 2909. Callers are asked to leave a voicemail, including name, phone number and county of residence. Norwescap will return calls in the order in which they’re received. The client is supplied a list of items to bring to their appointment, where an intake form will be completed, followed by an interview with a tax preparer. There are only three requirements to meet: the client must be vaccinated, be a resident of either Warren, Sussex or Morris counties and have an annual income of $60,000 or less for someone filing singly. Income limits are based on federal guidelines that may change from year to year, so it’s best to check with Norwescap or the IRS to confirm the current income limits for the program.
Once tax season begins, VITA volunteers meet with members of the community to prepare their returns. Meetings vary in length but average about an hour. There are 15 conveniently placed locations offered by Norwescap – four sites in Warren County, one of which will be in Phillipsburg; eight sites in Morris County; and two sites in Sussex County. Virtual video conferences will be available if needed.
The completed tax returns will be reviewed by the client and the preparer, with a final quality review conducted by a senior preparer. If the client approves, they sign a form acknowledging their responsibility for any taxes owed, and the form is e-filed.
Volunteers can also help seniors with a little-known program called Senior Tax Freeze (Property Tax Reimbursement). The Senior Tax Freeze is a program in New Jersey that helps eligible senior citizens keep their property taxes at a certain level. If the senior’s income stays the same or decreases and their property taxes increase, the program provides reimbursement for the difference. To be eligible, the senior must be at least 65 years old, have lived in their home for at least the past two years and have a maximum income of $91,505 for the year 2021. The program is designed to provide financial relief for seniors who may be on a fixed income and struggling to afford increasing property taxes.
VITA is an exciting opportunity for retirees, those who work in, or are interested in financial services, AmeriCorps members and anyone who wants to give back to their community. For those interested in becoming a Volunteer Income Tax Assistant contact the program’s director, Lanet Rivera at 973-784-4900, ext. 2908 office or firstname.lastname@example.org.