By Maria Saporta
A successful program that has put money in the pockets of Atlantans who need it most will now be managed by the United Way of Greater Atlanta instead of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program has been operated in metro Atlanta since 2007. It has offered free tax preparation services to low- and moderate-income families — helping them avoid costly income tax preparation fees and make sure that people receive all the available tax credits and deductions.
Those include the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and other available tax credits. VITA has been able to offer its services at more than 40 sites in 12 metro counties. The Atlanta Community Food Bank has been partnering with numerous organizations, including United Way.
“Since 2007, we have prepared 72,000 tax returns, and we have brought back to the families and to the community $168 million,” said Bill Bolling, executive director of the Community Food Bank. “This was a community effort.”
Bolling, however, said that the demand for the Food Bank’s services has doubled in the past four years, and that “we really needed to focus on our core work.”
So Bolling approached Milton Little, president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, to see if the VITA program could be managed by the umbrella social and human services association.
“Milton’s response was, ‘Yes. Let’s talk,’” Bolling said, adding that all the partners, including the Internal Revenue Service, agreed to remain involved to assure a smooth transition.
Little said the VITA program fits with one of United Way’s four key objectives — to help families with lower incomes to gain greater economic self sufficiency.
“We spent a lot of time, not only making sure we could pick up the baton, but see how we could advance it,” Little said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. “We want to see how we can make this an even more powerful anchor.”
Little said that there are 600,000 people in metro Atlanta who are eligible to receive tax credits but they are not yet taking advantage of what is rightfully theirs.
Annually the VITA program helps about 13,000 people file their tax returns and receive all their eligible tax credits, according to Carter Elliott, who has been heading up the program for the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Bolling said that Elliott and his team will work with the United Way until October to help in the transition. After that, Elliott will continue working with the Food Bank.
Little said that United Way will take full advantage of its networks to make the VITA program more available and accessible to families in the region. The agency’s 211 call center will be able to inform people of the service and help in getting volunteers to help prepare tax returns.
Little also said that United Way’s 1,000 workplace campaigns also has the ability to reach out to people at different companies to get involved with the program.
“We wouldn’t do this unless we could do it well,” Bolling said of shifting the responsibility of the VITA program from the Food Bank to United Way. “This is going to be a great story for many years to come.”
Bolling has long thought that the VITA program should be viewed as a major economic development initiative for the state because it adds millions of dollars into the economy and it gives financial resources to the people who need it most — the working poor.
As Elliott said: “There’s a great opportunity for this program, not just metro Atlanta, but for all of Georgia.”