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Tohono O'odham lead state in electronic tax filing program

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SELLS, Ariz. -- To high praise from Internal Revenue Service officials, the
Tohono O'odham Nation is steadily expanding a volunteer program to help
members file their federal income tax returns.

The IRS-sponsored program is called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. It
offers free help to low- to moderate-income taxpayers who earn $38,000 or
less. Various community organizations provide volunteers who receive IRS
training and then work in neighborhood centers. Since embracing the
program, the Tohono O'odham have emerged as one of its biggest users,
drawing mention from senior IRS officials in Washington, D.C.

The VITA center in Sells, capital of the Tohono O'odham Nation, already
leads the state in electronic filing. The nation is opening another center
in San Lucy District, another segment of its far-flung territory in the
Sonoran Desert.

When the program started five years ago, it filed around 500 tax returns,
program coordinator Walter Walema told Indian Country Today. Last year it
handled more than 1,000. "It's growing steadily," he said.

Walema, who works in the nation's accounting department, said the program
had strong backing from Chairman Vivian Juan-Saunders. "She just recognized
the benefit of the whole program, offering services to people who couldn't
afford the fees [of private preparers]. It's just a beneficial program."

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"We couldn't do it without their help," said Steven Bowers, Southwest Group
manager for the IRS Office of Indian Tribal Governments.

The Tohono O'odham centers offer free electronic filing. According to
Bowers, they generated 858 e-files in the 2004 tax year and 1,047 in 2005,
a 22 percent increase. Walema added that they also file paper returns and
amended returns, so the actual volume is somewhat higher.

Walema said one important purpose of the program is to give some of the
poorest taxpayers access to their Earned Income Tax Credit, a refund of
income and social security taxes that could amount to more than $3,000 for
people earning around $18,000. In cases of deep poverty, the credit could
provide even more than the actual deductions: a version of the "negative
income tax" proposal of the 1960s.

Although a branch of the IRS received heavy criticism recently for delaying
some of these refunds, Walema said he had not encountered that problem in
the Tohono O'odham centers. "People come in with letters from the IRS," he
said, "but it's usually because Social Security numbers don't match."

The IRS advises that people using the VITA centers should bring in photo
identification and Social Security cards for themselves, their spouses and
their dependents, as well as their current year tax package, wage and
earning statements (such as a W-2 form) and a copy of last year's returns
if available. It emphasizes the need for correct Social Security numbers.
Mismatches with Social Security Administration records are a major cause of
delayed refunds, it says.

Bowers said the IRS would welcome hearing from other tribes interested in
sponsoring the program, but he cautioned that it was too late in the season
to start one for this year. "But we can work through the summer to get
ready for next year," he said.