TODAY'S PAPER
Good Evening
Good Evening
Long Island

LIers get help as volunteer tax assistance program goes virtual amid pandemic

Geraldine Gruenthal, of Levittown, gets help with her

Geraldine Gruenthal, of Levittown, gets help with her taxes from Robert Smith, of the state Department of Taxation and Finance, in 2017. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program this year has gone mostly virtual due to the pandemic. Credit: Steve Pfost

A Zoom video chat and some iPhone photos during a 51-minute appointment, and 38-year-old East Islip resident Lorraine Dendy’s taxes were filed, for free — with a refund of almost $9,000 due her way.

Dendy, a single mother of two girls who earns about $24,000 a year as a medical biller, did her taxes from home with the help of a local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which, after 18 years in person, has gone all virtual this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past, she’d need to crowd into a jam-packed credit union branch and jockey for a spot in line, or arrange an appointment ahead of time to meet a volunteer at the local library. Now, she said, "You open up the email, you hit the Zoom link. Boom! The representative comes right up."

The VITA program — which has been around for more than 50 years across the country — is coordinated through the Internal Revenue Service. One of the programs is arranged locally through Bethpage Federal Credit Union.

Anyone on Long Island or in the tristate area making $57,000 or less — the same qualifying income for the earned-income tax credit — can sign up for the program, which serves speakers of English or Spanish, according to Linda Armyn, the credit union’s senior vice president for corporate affairs.

Bethpage offers one-hour appointments Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., and Wednesdays from noon until 6 p.m.

In addition, help may be available at some Long Island libraries. For example, at the Freeport Memorial Library, eligible taxpayers may drop off their paperwork, and a volunteer preparer will contact them by phone, according to the library's website.

The IRS offers a locator tool for VITA tax prep help at irs.gov/vita.

Ordinarily, Bethpage would offer about 2,000 appointments in person, but due to the pandemic, this year there will be about 600, all virtual, Armyn said. There are fewer volunteers, who now must provide assistance virtually.

The last appointment will be April 8, she said.

Armyn recommends that those who aren’t computer-savvy seek help from a relative or friend to help schedule and attend a session together.

For information or to apply, go to www.lovebethpage.com/vita.

Tax documents such as W-2s, 1099s and other forms can be uploaded via the credit union’s secure portal.

Not everyone qualifies who meets the income threshold. Among those excluded: those who are self-employed and those who are itemizing deductions. The program is intended for basic tax returns, not more complicated ones, because the helpers aren’t tax professionals like attorneys or CPAs — but are IRS-certified to complete basic returns, Armyn said.

In addition to virtual video chat appointments, the credit union is helping offer secure access to what’s called a Facilitated Self Assistance program through IRS-sponsored software and other access to an interactive "Facilitated Self Assistance" Lab, which helps taxpayers prepare their own returns. There are tutorials on Feb. 22, March 8 and March 22 for the latter.

Dendy raved about how easy the program was — the Zoom split screen with the expert preparer, snapping pictures of her tax documents with her iPhone, uploading with a secure server, during her appointment Feb. 2 — compared with paying for a tax preparation service like H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt, as she used to until eight years ago, before she started using the VITA program.

To apply for the Bethpage program, go to www.lovebethpage.com/vita

For more about VITA or to find other locations for help, go to irs.gov/vita

Latest Long Island News