WOONSOCKET â€” Tax time has arrived and with it the potential for local families to bring in a little extra in their refund checks.
That was the message federal, state and local officials, and their community partners, put out Friday during the kickoff of the Rhode Island Community Action Association's (RICAA) annual effort to provide free tax preparation services to working Rhode Islanders at the Museum of Work and Culture.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, Gov. Lincoln Chafee, State Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Woonsocket Mayor Leo T. Fontaine joined their private sector partners in encouraging taxpayers to take advantage of the free services and also apply for the IRSâ€™s Earned Income Tax Credit Program if they meet eligibility requirements.
The program received support from the Citizens Bank Foundation and the United Way of Rhode Island for setting up Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites around the state, including the local filing centers at Family Resources, at 245 Main St., and Connecting for Children and Families, at 46 Hope St.
Paula McFarland, RICAA executive director, welcomed the officials to the Museum of Work and Culture and noted that in addition to helping working families complete their annual tax forms, the program also helps those who are eligible apply for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (e.g. a married couple with three children making $49,078 or less, or a one-parent family with three children earning $43,998 or less). Furthermore, qualifying families can collect up to $5,751 per year in allowed credits on their income taxes from work. Families may also apply for credits from past years, typically averaging $2,500, to boost the total of this year's refund under the program.
Last year, RICAA agencies helped citizens process over 4,000 returns, which generated $7 million back to the state's economy, Ben Lessing, executive director of Family Resources in Woonsocket, told the gathering.
"I think it's important to really look at it on two levels: one in terms of the immediate assistance it provides to families, but also in terms of the benefits back to the community in general," Lessing said.
"Those monies, flowing back into the communities, are particularly important at this point in time," he added.
The work done by the Family Resources tax program, headed by Rita Gandhi, processed over 1,200 tax returns last year, returning $1.8 million in refunds back to the local community, Lessing said. A total of $730,000 of those returns were attributable to earned income tax credits, he added.
"So, it is a tremendous resources to our families and it is a tremendous resource to our local economy," he said.
Mayor Fontaine likened the earned income credit program to the property tax program put in place for city taxpayers a number of years ago. The program offered city homeowners a $250 tax credit but many did not take advantage of the program, Fontaine said.
"It seemed a little crazy to me why people wouldn't take advantage of this but it was because they didn't know much about it," he said. Fontaine, then a member of the City Council, said he pushed to get the word out to city residents and noted "we ended up having a whole bunch of people come down to City Hall for help in filling out these forms and we still do it now," he said.
Fontaine added that he still remembers how thankful people were to get even $250 back. "It was as if we were giving them a million dollars."
Gov. Chafee said it was important to make sure people know about these programs, especially with the current state of the economy.
Distressed communities like Woonsocket have been hard hit by the state's efforts to balance its budget and have seen their state aid decrease by 17 percent since 2008, the governor noted.
Chafee said he plans to propose a restoration of state aid to the distressed communities in an attempt to address the past cuts in state aid.
"So when Ben talked about getting that money to flow back, this is very important here, but also I think you have to look at the state budget to reverse those devastating cuts to the distressed communities which goes right to the property taxpayer," Chafee said. The past 17-percent reduction in state aid to distressed communities in turn translated to a 16-percent increase in the property tax levy for those communities, he noted.
Senator Reed said the earned income tax credit program has been supported on a bipartisan level in Congress because of its impact on working families.
"That's what this program is about, earned income tax credits," Reed said. "You go to work to get this. And I think it says volumes about a program that rewards work and expresses fairness in our tax system."
"It says that people who are working hard should be able to benefit from their hard work. And not just to benefit in terms of the wages that they receive but also the benefits that they receive," Reed added.
The senator noted that the program would not be as effective without support from the community action programs and their funding partners like the Citizens Bank Foundation, which gave $15,000 this year in promotional support, and the United Way, which contributed $105,000 to help set up the community filing centers.
The program began in 1975 and has always held strong bipartisan support, Reed noted.
"In 1986, in President Reagan's tax proposals, the Earned Income Tax Credit program was strengthened," he said. The support has been strong "because there is recognition by all of us that one of things we want to do is reward work and make sure we have treated people fairly in our tax system."
State Treasurer Raimondo told the gathering that kicking off last year's Earned Income Tax Credit awareness drive was one of her first tasks as a newly elected official and she was happy to be back in that role again this year.
"As many of you know, financial literacy is a priority in my office and I have enjoyed working with all of you in the past year on that initiative," she said. "You know this is very important work, it affects real peopleâ€™s lives. At the end of the day, putting a hundred dollars, or two hundred dollars, or $1,000 or $2000 into the pocket of a working family could make all the difference to that family. So we are here to celebrate your work and to thank you."
For more information on how to apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit or to visit one of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program centers, visit www.ricommunityaction.org, or call Family Resources at 401-766-0900, or Connecting for Children & Families at 401-766-3384.