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Volunteer Don Schanck, left, helps Pat and Bob Gallagher, of Richmond, prepare their taxes at the Jonnycake Center for Hope in Peace Dale on March 29 as part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner paid a visit to the Jonnycake Center on Monday, touting the center’s involvement in a federal program for low-income earners to file their taxes free of charge.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program is funded through the IRS and is geared toward families that make less than $57,000 per year, Magaziner said.

Magaziner met with Jonnycake Center for Hope Executive Director Kate Brewster and several VITA volunteers.

“We want to get the word out about the VITA services, this year more than ever,” Magaziner said. “I imagine a lot of people will see bigger refunds than they normally would.”

There are about two dozen VITA sites throughout Rhode Island, Magaziner said.

“Some are in-person, some are remote only and others like this one are a hybrid,” he said.

The Jonnycake VITA site is set up at the center’s thrift store, off the roundabout at 1231 Kingstown Road. The store is lined with racks of clothing and accessories that normally, in pre-pandemic times, would be available to browse and buy.

Instead, the VITA volunteers have set up tables and equipment for their tax work, and also use a small area at the back of the store to meet one-on-one with tax filers.

Among the volunteers is the site manager, Bob Hicks, who has served South Kingstown in various capacities over the years. Hicks was a superintendent of schools for the town.

He said the VITA site is open on Mondays and Tuesdays, with in-person meetings and drop-offs on Monday mornings.

There’s an appointment every hour and then every 15 minutes we have a drop-off appointment,” he said. “Then we have two preparers who come in in the afternoon and do virtual returns for the people who drop off in the morning. Then on Tuesdays in the morning we do a combination of virtual and drop-off.”

The center also is open two Saturdays this tax season – Feb. 25 and this Saturday, April 3 – for those that might have difficulty making it to a weekday appointment.

The IRS and the state recently extended this year’s tax filing deadline to May 17.

As of Monday the Jonnycake Center VITA site had received about 120 returns, Hicks said. Ninety-nine of those have been filed and the remainder were being processed for filing.

Brewster said all the volunteer participants have to go through extensive training, pass a test and become IRS certified in order to be on a VITA team. The Jonnycake site has seven volunteers, she said. The site also has a professional accountant that works at the site weekly, Hicks said.

The uncertainty in January and February about whether Congress would vote to pass another COVID relief package with extended unemployment benefits also affected how filers reacted locally.

“The biggest issue is unemployment,” Hicks told Magaziner. “You’re going to be getting returns with three different kinds of handling of unemployment, so that’s the big question.”

Some filers opted to wait until lawmakers acted. Others told the VITA personnel to file anyway in order to get their anticipated refund.

Congress ultimately passed a package that includes a provision that makes the first $10,200 of unemployment nontaxable for each taxpayer who made less than $150,000 in 2020.

“The IRS has said they’ll handle the ones that have already filed,” Hicks said. “We’re still waiting to see how Rhode Island will handle it.”

Magaziner discussed the benefits of using the free file service, including the opportunity for many families to get money back by claiming the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, education tax credits and others.   

Qualifying community members are encouraged to visit their local VITA site to receive free assistance filing their taxes this year. All VITA sites are listed on http://treasury.ri.gov .    

“These guys have done an amazing job with the VITA program in the last year,” Brewster said. “They kept going. They were doing tax returns through July.”

This year, the Jonnycake site will continue operating until the new May 17 filing deadline, Brewster said. For more information, call the center at (401) 789-1559.

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