CRA cuts download low-income tax help to volunteers: legal aid group

Tax assistance for low-income, senior and disabled residents sees surge in demand with permanent closure of CRA offices: TAPS

Funding cuts to federal tax offices are creating confusion and frustration for hundreds of Victoria residents with non-profit groups being left to pick up the slack, says the head of a local legal aid group.

Together Against Poverty Society is one of several local organizations who run tax preparation clinics for low-income, disabled and senior residents on behalf of the Canada Revenue Agency each year.

“It’s a program that the CRA delivers, but all they do is refer people to organizations like us,” said Kelly Newhook, TAPS executive director. “So if you call CRA and ask them to help low-income people do their taxes, they end up in our office.”

TAPS relies on six retired accountants and accounting students to help about 60 people file their taxes once a week as part of the CRA’s Community Volunteer Income Tax Program. The CRA provides volunteers with tax software and training through a 41-minute online video and tele-conferencing services.

Last year, volunteers recovered $1.5 million in federal and provincial tax returns, and TAPS has already recovered $790,000 for more than 400 clients this season, Newhook said.

On the CRA website, the referral program is touted as a “collaboration” with community organizations, but Newhook said it amounts to little more than downloading of government responsibility onto community groups.

“The (CRA) program increases our overhead and CRA doesn’t give us a penny,” she said of the walk-in service. “There’s usually a line-up outside the building when we arrive. We turn away about 20 people every week. They pack in this lobby, a lot of people with disabilities and health issues.”

Tax office closures lead to confusion

Last October, CRA offices across the country were permanently closed to the public, a result of more than $100 million in cutbacks to the agency in the 2013/14 budget. The agency is in the process of cutting more than $313-million annually and about 3,100 full-time positions from its ranks by 2017-18, according to recent reports.

A spokesperson for the CRA said over half a million Canadians used the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program in 2013, with approximately 99,000 British Columbians accessing the service. Regional numbers were not available, but the spokesperson said there are 25 community groups offering volunteer tax services on southern Vancouver Island.

Victoria MP Murray Rankin said his office is experiencing a surge in calls from residents, many without access to computers, who are confused about how to access CRA services.

“You don’t get the tax packages in the mail anymore, you can no longer do Telefile, and you can no longer do simplified tax return forms,” said Rankin, also the Official Opposition’s National Revenue critic.

Rankin said CRA employees who previously assisted volunteers in person with complicated tax files are now only available through an 800-number, which can be backlogged.

“The government walks away from any accountability for service delivery and who picks up the slack? Community minded groups,” he said.

James Bay New Horizons expanded its seniors-only tax preparation program to the greater low-income community this year, and its 300-plus appointments are already booked to mid-April, said executive director Kim Dixon.

“We’ve noticed a substantial increase in demand this year,” she said.

Volunteers book appointments and run the program, but staff time and resources are still required, Dixon says.

“We use our own computers, and we print everything off for people’s records,” she says. “I think we’re only one of four (local) organizations running this program.”

Silver Threads offices in Saanich and Victoria also administer in the CRA’s low-income program, assisting about 320 low-income seniors during tax season, said Anne Nelson, Saanich centre director.

Drop-off tax preparation services are also available through St. Vincent de Paul Social Concern office, Saanich Baptist Church and others.

‘Tax return blitz’ to be held tomorrow in downtown Victoria

To help meet demand, TAPS and the Victoria Cool Aid Society are hosting a “tax return blitz” today at the Downtown Community Activity Centre, 755 Pandora Ave., from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

A financial information fair will be held in conjunction and hosted by the Community Social Planning Council and the Financial Empowerment Resources Network. Grants from Vancity and the TC Financial Literacy Fund are being used to pay for the event.

Rankin’s office also keeps a list of organizations providing volunteer tax clinics.

“Of course we want people to come get their taxes done, but there is a constant downloading of responsibility onto community services for basic needs,” Newhook said. “Doing your taxes is a basic right of citizenship and not being provided support to complete that action is a problem.”

dpalmer@vicnews.com

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