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Center to offer financial services
Agency to help families claim tax credits, get counseling
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For years, Gainesville’s Community Service Center has provided short-term emergency assistance to people who need help with their monthly bills. But the center needed something else to give folks long-term relief from their financial woes.

Last month, the Gainesville City Council approved the creation of the Center for Family Prosperity. Phillippa Lewis-Moss, director of the Community Service Center, hopes it will be the answer to working families’ financial struggles.

For the most part, the program is designed to help people get their hands on earned income tax credits and child tax credits by providing free tax preparation. Many tax credits go unclaimed at the end of tax season, Lewis-Moss said.

"There are literally hordes — and when I say ‘hordes,’ I mean several multi-millions of dollars — that are left in the banks of IRS that haven’t been accessed."

Hall County residents did not claim about $500,000 of their income tax credits last year, and if people claimed that money, it would benefit individual families as well as the whole community, Lewis-Moss said.

"If we could bring in ... half a million dollars, what a difference that could make to local businesses, schools, city of Gainesville and Hall County," Lewis-Moss said. "That could be a nice infusion of dollars — of tax dollars."

Some people do not claim their tax credits because they either are not aware of the tax credits available to them or they have a preparer file their taxes for them who fails to ask the right questions, Lewis-Moss said. Even those aware of possible tax credits could be losing a portion of their tax refunds by paying extra for a "rapid refund," Lewis-Moss said.

The program, which will be up and running by next tax season, will go one step further and help people decide what to do with their tax returns. Lewis-Moss said smart spending and saving could be "the difference between having enough money to fix those car tires to paying for those gas bills when you have a very cold winter to getting that extra medicine."

"It’s not an original idea of Phillippa’s," Lewis-Moss said. "I wish it was, because it was a brilliant idea."

The program is the brainchild of the Annie E. Casey foundation and the Internal Revenue Service to help working families use their tax returns to improve the quality of their lives. The program encourages communities to coordinate with volunteers to help prepare tax returns for working families at no cost.

The IRS provides computers, tax software, and helps to license the volunteers at registered tax preparation sites, or Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites, like the one that will be housed in the Community Service Center next tax season.

"If you were to be a volunteer, you would have to be licensed. You just can’t come off the street and say ‘hey, I want to help,’’’ Lewis-Moss said. "Because of course, preparing taxes ... is a huge responsibility and it’s not one you want to do lightly."

Gainesville’s volunteer tax preparers are 25 Brenau University business students who are currently volunteering their time to design the office for the Center for Family Prosperity. The students soon will start marketing the program.

Lewis-Moss, Hall County Commissioner Deborah Mack and the United Way’s Carol Williams discovered the program last August at a National Association of Counties conference in Savannah, and Mack wanted to bring it to Hall County.

When they returned from the conference, Lewis-Moss and Williams began researching and found it was a nationwide movement.

"What we discovered is there is this whole movement, and centers such as the one we’re creating exist in many places," Lewis-Moss said.

Gainesville’s Center for Family Prosperity will be one of a few in the state, behind Savannah and Atlanta.

But Lewis-Moss understands that financial prosperity cannot merely be attained during tax season. When tax season is over, the volunteers at the center will also provide credit checks and analyses, information on how to prevent and recover from identity theft, encourage people to open bank accounts and conduct other financial literacy programs throughout the year.

The financial literacy programs will be group and individual classes that help people understand financial mysteries such as interest rates, the housing market and saving money for college.

"People have a lot of financial questions that they’re not really sure what do with," Lewis-Moss said.