The back room at the Port St. Joe Public Library has been rearranged over the past few weeks to accommodate its newest residents.
Desks sit in neat rows at the edges of the room, spread out a little for privacy. One laptop sits at each one. Two tables have been pushed near the door to create a sort of reception desk, and a bulletin board at the back of the room proudly displays the organization’s rules and values.
The makeover was not for aesthetics, but rather to create a functional temporary workspace for dozens of Gulf County volunteers who will be working with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program to provide tax preparation services to locals for free.
“Families are struggling more than ever with uncertainty brought on by the pandemic,” said United Way of Northwest Florida’s President Bryan Taylor. “We reach low and moderate income households so they can easily and properly access the money and tax credits they are entitled to.”
This is the program’s first year operating in Gulf and Bay Counties, but it has a long-running history nationwide. They will be operating tax preparation sites at both of Gulf County’s public libraries by appointment through early April.
You do not have to be a resident of Gulf or Bay Counties to participate. VITA sites offer free tax help to people who need assistance in preparing their own returns, including people who generally make less than $58,000, persons with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers.
Hill, who first had the idea to bring the program to the area, has been volunteering with VITA in other cities for more than five years.
“My sister lives here… and I thought ‘well gee, let me go spend some time over there with her this winter. I’ll just volunteer at a tax site there,’” she said. “And then I was like ‘oh, there is no tax site here.’ I guess I can see if I can get one started.”
Volunteers go through a rigorous training process before they are allowed to help, which is made up of a series of digital tests and scenarios and takes upwards of 24 hours to study for and complete.
“When I first looked at it, they said to anticipate 24 hours on your own studying. I don’t think that was under it,” joked Val Homan, a VITA volunteer for Gulf County. “I thought ‘well I can get this done way quicker than 24 hours.’ I didn’t.”
VITA is still taking volunteers to help file taxes at both Gulf County locations.
For more information about the program or to schedule an appointment, visit http://www.bit.ly/RealSenseTaxes or call 904-632-0600. If you need in-person assistance scheduling an appointment, you can visit the Two Fish Market, CareerSource or either of the county’s public libraries.
VITA asks that you bring a photo ID, a checkbook for direct deposit of any refund, social security cards for yourself and all dependents, a W-2 from each employer, documentation of all other income and a 1095-A if you received Marketplace health coverage.