VITA returns $1 million to BerrienPublished 8:08pm Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Robert Burgess heads the local IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program for low-income residents, which returned more than $1 million to Berrien County processing 750 federal and state returns.
It’s Burgess’s seventh year with the program, which has been running in Berrien County about a dozen years, including at Niles District Library.
“I never thought I’d like taxes, but our clients are very gracious. The rewards are immediate. When someone gets a large refund, that’s a good feeling,” Burgess said Wednesday.
It can be awkward posing probing questions about how much someone earns, as well as how, since casino gambling earnings are taxable. Confidentiality laws prevent Burgess from divulging much detail, but he’ll always remember the woman who came in just before April 15 after being diagnosed with cancer. The following year she was in remission, prompting her remark, “This is the best day I’ve had in a long time” — not often heard at tax time.
Moments like that “make me want to come back year after year,” Burgess, of Stevensville, said. He retired a year ago as chief financial officer for Lakeshore Public Schools.
“I really enjoy working with people. I started my career as a CPA, but as an auditor, not a tax accountant,” said Burgess, who worked on the 1979 Chrysler bailout.
“We primarily serve people who make less than $50,000, and that’s the high end,” Burgess said. “Most make considerably less than that. We’re also saving tax preparation fees which can run $150 to $200.”
United Way of Southwest Michigan in St. Joseph sponsors VITA, so there are also volunteers based at Cass District Library in Cassopolis.
The Volunteer Center of Southwest Michigan helps recruit VITA’s 25 to 30 volunteers.
“We’re very blessed Nancy Studebaker and her staff and Niles District Library board allow us to use their facility,” Burgess said. Niles started taking appointments this year to cut wait time.
“A few years ago, we had to look at a lot of unemployment forms. The good news is that this year there were a whole lot less of them. Two years ago in particular, quite honestly, I was tired of seeing the 1099-G unemployment form. Someone with one of those forms had a tough year. This year there was a marked improvement,” Burgess said.
In April, Michigan’s unemployment rate dropped two-tenths of a percentage point to 8.3 percent.
Michigan League for Human Services Monday reported low-income working families will pay $244 million more in state income taxes next year because of reductions in the earned income tax credit (EITC). It said the EITC in 2009 sliced taxes by $349 million, but that savings shrinks to $104 million for 2012. Lawmakers reduced the credit from 20 percent of federal EITC to 6 percent.
“If you got $2,000, that’s $400 for state. Next year, reduced to 6 percent, $120,” Burgess said. “It was a large benefit to the working class because it helps a lot of people on the margins stay out of poverty.”