When Rhini Sripanjalingam of Frederick came to the United States in 2010 from her native Sri Lanka, she was unaware of the complex tax laws that Americans must obey.
Sripanjalingam said her family had no idea how to file income taxes and needed help from the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program in Frederick County.
The VITA program provides free tax-preparation services for eligible residents with an annual income of $51,000 or less.
The volunteers prepare basic federal and state taxes. People with more complex investments are told to go to a paid accountant or tax firm.
“My family didn’t know anything about filing taxes,” Sripanjalingam said. “We had to file 2011 taxes, and we didn’t know how to. We found out about [VITA], and from there, they were able to help me with my taxes.”
Sripanjalingam, who is now training to be a volunteer with VITA, recounted her story Thursday at an event kicking off the start of the tax season at the Bernard Brown Community Center in Frederick.
The briefing was sponsored by the Frederick County Financial Literacy Coalition, a United Way of Frederick County organization that offers resources and education on financial stability and help to people working in low-paying jobs.
The coalition includes members from the United Way, Housing Authority of the City of Frederick, the Frederick Community Action Agency, Interfaith Housing Alliance, Advocates for Homeless Families and the University of Maryland Extension Service.
It sponsored the event to not only promote VITA, but also the earned income tax credit — a refundable tax credit issued by the federal government for low-income taxpayers.
“The earned income tax credit encourages people to work and rewards people that work,” said Josh Pedersen, chief executive officer of the United Way of Frederick County. “It puts hands to work .... It can boost a family’s income by $230 a month.”
That’s money that can be used to pay bills and buy food, Pedersen said.
“It pays for the lights to stay on, and it pays for the gas to stay on an extra month,” he said. “If these tax credits are kept in our community, it improves everybody’s lives and the local economy.”
Earned income tax payments vary based on a person’s income and family members. Workers can claim the credit even if they do not owe income taxes by filing federal and state income tax returns.
For example, in 2012, a person between the ages of 25 and 64 may qualify if he or she has one child and earned less than $36,920 a year; two or more children earning less than $41,952; three or more children earning less than $45,060; and no children, earning less than $13,980, according to documents distributed at the event.
Guest speaker, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, praised the tax credit.
“It is the single most successful program to help fight poverty the United States has ever had,” he said. “It helps people get out of poverty and is a great program.... Unfortunately, not a lot of people are aware of it.”
Although the economy is getting better, there are many Marylanders who are struggling financially and would benefit from the tax credit, Franchot said.
“Out here in Western Maryland, and here in Frederick, you understand the financial stress Maryland families are experiencing,” he said. “We’re struggling, and a lot of businesses are just trying to survive. I can’t emphasize too much all the suffering here in Maryland because of the economic downturn. There are vacant stores up and down the streets in every town in Maryland.”
Franchot also praised the VITA program and the help it provides to working families unable to hire an accountant.
“We are all intimidated by taxes, and I’m happy this program is available,” he said.
Sripanjalingam said the program not only taught her computer skills, but in 2011 she was able to prepare her own taxes.
“I was able to get my refund, and I’m planning to volunteer [this year],” she said. “This is helping me stand on my own feet in the United States.”
For information on the tax credit and the VITA program call the Bernard Brown Community Center at 301-662-3691 or 301-662-0294.