On a Saturday last spring, seven Internal Revenue Service agents descended upon Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany.
They weren’t there to audit anyone. Instead, they helped people who otherwise wouldn’t have filed a tax return: disabled veterans who don’t normally pay taxes but still qualified for the economic stimulus checks approved by Congress last winter.
“We were afraid that a lot of the seniors who were eligible for this wouldn’t file for it,” said Peter Potter, a spokesman for Stratton VA Medical Center. As a result, the VA made a concerted effort to get the word out; the Saturday event drew about 50 people.
“There needed to be outreach,” he said. “A majority of people had heard about [the stimulus], but they didn’t understand that it would impact them so much. Even the folks who did know about it appreciated the helping hand.
“There are probably folks who still don’t know about it,” Potter said. “Hopefully the word gets out there.”
According to the IRS, as of June about 74 percent of eligible retirees and disabled veterans had applied for their tax rebate, leaving about 5.2 million potential recipients, out of about 20 million, remaining. In New York, that figure is a little lower. According to the agency, 67 percent of 1.3 million potential retirees and disabled veterans have filed, leaving about 440,000 potential recipients remaining.
In Schenectady County, approximately 3,153 eligible disabled veterans and retirees have not filed for their stimulus check. In Albany County, that number is 6,195; in Rensselaer, 3,037; in Fulton, 1,244; in Montgomery, 1,220; in Saratoga, 2,841; and in Schoharie, 780.
The stimulus package, intended to stave off a recession by providing people with extra money to spend, provided rebates of $600 to individuals and rebates of $1,200 for couples, plus an additional $300 per child. People who earn too little to pay taxes, including elderly people whose main source of income is Social Security and veterans who live on disability payments, get $300 if single or $600 if a couple. They must earn at least $3,000 to receive the minimum payment; qualifying income includes any combination of earned income, nontaxable combat pay and certain benefit payments from Social Security, Veterans Affairs and Railroad Retirement.
In order to claim the stimulus payment, recipients must file tax form 1040A by Oct. 15.
“Most people only need to file a tax return as they normally do,” said IRS New York spokeswoman Dianne Besunder. “We will calculate eligibility and payment amount. However, many retirees and veterans do not normally file a tax return because their benefits are not taxable. This year, they must file in order to receive an economic stimulus payment.”
According to the IRS, receiving a stimulus payment, which is not taxable, should have no impact on other federal benefits being received and will not require retirees to start filing taxes again.
Tax rebate checks are also available for low-income people who do not ordinarily earn enough money to pay taxes but made at least $3,000 last year. It isn’t as easy to file this time of year as it was in the spring because the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which assists low-to-moderate-income people with their taxes, closed down at the end of May. During tax season, there were more than 45 VITA sites in Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady and Schoharie counties.
“People can still file for the rebate, but there are not many people offering free help right now,” said Deb Schimpf, executive of the Schenectady Community Action Program. During tax season, preparers helped several hundred people file for their economic stimulus checks at SCAP. Schimpf said Marion Porterfield, who runs the Schenectady Weed and Seed program, is providing some assistance now.
The United Way of the Greater Capital Region, which coordinated the VITA program in partnership with CASH of the Greater Capital Region, a coalition of local community, education, religious and financial organizations that formed about three years ago, is also continueing to provide tax assistance. People who need help can call 456-2200.
“It took a certain amount of outreach, a concerted effort by the coalition to get the word out that the stimulus package is still available,” said Herm Hill, vice president of marketing and communications for the United Way of the Greater Capital Region.
Of the top 100 cities nationwide with potential recipients who have not yet filed, New York City is No. 1 (204,567 remaining filers), Buffalo is 55 (8,687 remaining filers), Rochester is 72 (6,469 remaining filers) and Syracuse is 78 (5,960 remaining filers).
Nationwide, the IRS has issued 76.5 million stimulus payments worth $63.8 billion based on 2007 returns; the agency expects to issue 124 million payments by the end of the year.