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Published: Sunday, 1/20/2008

Don't let free cash slip away

If you're working harder than ever but struggling more to get by, listen up.

Even as ivory-tower economists argue the effectiveness of the President's plan for tax relief, millions of dollars owed to working families just like yours could still go unclaimed this year.

A news brief Friday in The Blade gave a quick peek at local efforts to make sure that everyone who's eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit gets their cut.

That's important, because too often the very people who most need the EITC - the biggest federal benefit out there for low and moderate-income working people - don't even know about it.

The state treasurer's office says an individual can earn up to $12,590, while single parents can make as much as $37,783 and be eligible. Married couples can qualify while earning anywhere between $14,590 and $39,783, depending upon family size.

At the high end of the eligibility scale, the EITC could yield as much as $4,700 for some families.

In these troubled times, as we push back against what many fear is an advancing recession, that's just too much money for any family to unknowingly

forfeit.

Last year, the nonprofit research organization Policy Matters Ohio said anywhere from 5 to 25 percent of American families who meet the income guidelines nevertheless miss out on this program's refundable income tax credits.

In recent years, more than 780,000 Ohioans have benefited from these tax credits, with each family cashing checks that average roughly $1,700 per household. Altogether, the EITC funneled more than $1.3 billion in federal refunds statewide.

"Only seven other states receive more EITC dollars than Ohio," Policy Matters reported.

And still, there's money left sitting on the table.

This year, the Internal Revenue Service as well as such locally and regionally oriented agencies as United Way are teaming up to get the word out. Around Toledo, United Way representatives will be joined by Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz and Commissioner Ben Konop in a bid for door-to-door outreach around East Toledo.

But aside from knowing about the EITC, taxpayers also need to know they don't have to pay for costly tax services. That's important information because, as Policy Matters explains, "paid preparers who often charge high fees to prepare the return also often convince filers to purchase high-interest loans that enable them to get their returns a little bit more quickly.

"In Ohio, more than 65 percent of those receiving the EITC went to paid preparers and on average, spent $120 in preparation and administrative fees."

In Lucas County alone, 40 percent of those receiving an EITC return also shelled out for so-called "refund anticipation loans," sometimes known as rapid-refund loans.

But locally, the Toledo Economic Opportunity Coalition coordinates free tax preparation at nine locations throughout Lucas County. Through an IRS program known as VITA, volunteers will help taxpayers and file electronically for them at no charge.

So tell a friend and pass it on, OK?

(To find a local VITA site, check the Web site of the Lucas County commissioners, or call 1-800-829-1040.)



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