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It was a few days before the tax deadline and Rep. Mike Thompson decided to stop at the UpValley Family Centers to discuss the center’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

Not to get his taxes done – he and wife Jan have used Mel Varrelman’s services for years – but to discover one of the centers’ most vibrant programs. Executive Director Jenny Ocón said last year the 27 tax preparers/volunteers provided free tax preparation services to 485 households, generating almost $780,000 in refunds.

“If you look at our numbers over the past five years, we have had a pretty steady increase of households served,” Ocón said. “Last year, there were 485. Total refunds from 2010 to date are close to $4 million that has been brought back to the Upvalley communities.” Of the $3.98 million, some $2.6 million was for both earned income credit and child tax credits.

Thompson, D-St. Helena, who had on his reading glasses and was examining the VITA program fact sheet, said, “That’s an important distinction. This isn’t just bringing money back to the individual taxpayer, this is money they spend in the community.”

The UpValley Family Centers offers the free tax services at both its St. Helena and Calistoga locations, and Ocón added, “We’re in the heat of the tax season right now, but when April 18 passes, we will continue to accept appointments for people who want to file.” She said the UpValley Family Centers is the only agency in the Upvalley area that offers the VITA program, and it is the only one open year-round for taxes in Napa, Solano and Lake counties.

“One of the things we have been doing, starting last year and even more this year, is pushing the savings initiative,” Ocón said.

“VITA is one of our most well-used program offerings. We’re really proud of this program and Norma (Ferriz) is one of our leaders on it. I know you know about the VITA program. What you may not know is the leadership that our agency has provided on the program countywide. Norma here is an expert. She’s been helping people with free tax preparation; in addition she trains the volunteers. All of our volunteers with the exception of our PUC students are advanced-level trained in tax returns.”

Michael Caldarola serves on the board of directors for the UpValley Family Centers and is one of the volunteer tax preparers. He said that he has prepared taxes five of the past seven years. “I enjoy providing a service to the low- and moderate-income (people) in the Upvalley community who really benefit from not only having a free tax service but also tremendously benefit from our ability to get them the most refunds that are available to them. That money not only helps them, but also comes usually back into the community,” he said.

Of the 27 volunteer tax preparers, 14 are students in the tax class at Pacific Union College, Ferriz said. The partnership between the centers and PUC began three years ago and Ferriz added, “The current teacher of the class tax was a volunteer with us two years ago, so it has been a real continuation of the program.”

Caldarola said he gets satisfaction in figuring out how to do the tax returns. “There’s great enjoyment in being able to do a tax return and have somebody with a cloudy face when they walk in, brighten up because they’re going to get a refund.”

One other benefit: “There’s a satisfaction that the money is going to do some good.”

Ocón and Ferriz added one more element to the VITA program last year, which is families saving part of their refund for the future. “This is a real opportunity for people to save, because they are receiving a large amount at one moment.” She said that the tax preparers tell their clients that they have to establish a rainy-day fund or a college fund for their children, either in a savings account or by buying a U.S. savings bond. “A lot of people are choosing to buy a U.S. savings bond, either $50 or $100 a year,” Ferriz said. And, she added, they get really excited thinking about how much they would have in 10 years.

Thompson said the government’s “myRA,” a retirement account for individuals, is a better deal than U.S. savings bonds, and he asked the staff to find a way to illustrate how the money grows over time. The U.S. Treasury-backed account is for those who don’t have access to a retirement savings plan at work and earn less than $131,000 if single and $193,000 if married and filing jointly.

Ferriz said, “It’s exciting to know that a lot of people are choosing to save a part of their refund, and that number has increased.” The economy is getting better and people are thinking about the future, she said. “This is one of the most exciting things.”

According to a fact sheet, the VITA program “is dedicated to helping low-income residents with free tax preparation services using trained staff and community volunteers.” The program has been offered in St. Helena and Calistoga for the past 12 years.

The VITA program was supported by United Way, Napa Valley Community Foundation and Wells Fargo Bank. It is part of the Earn it! Keep it! Save it! Coalition, whose mission is to provide free tax preparation services as a tool to help residents become financially stable.

The UpValley Family Centers has offices in St. Helena and Calistoga. For information visit UpValleyFamilyCenters.org or call 963-1919 (St. Helena) or 942-6206 (Calistoga).

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