Jim Houghton spent almost four decades as an engineer at Combustion Engineering and Alstom Power. Now, the 76-year-old Chattanooga-area resident is doing his best to help folks navigate tax season.
Houghton is a site coordinator for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program sponsored by the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga. The program offers free help preparing income tax returns to individuals and families who make less than $54,000 a year, people with disabilities, and those with limited English-speaking skills.
And like many of the volunteers in the annual program that helps thousands of area residents claim millions of dollars in refunds, Houghton's previous accounting experience was not that much more expansive than balancing his checkbook.
"Fifteen years ago, a close friend that was volunteering at the Northside Neighborhood House told me they had heard about an income tax program for low-income people that the Urban League was sponsoring, and the Neighborhood House was looking for someone to do taxes for their clients," he said. "I had been retired a couple of years and was kind of looking for something to do to give back to my community. So I volunteered."
Now he's regularly spending multiple hours several days a week helping those in the VITA program, which is nationally sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service. The local VITA program, hosted by the Urban League under the leadership of Val Palmer, makes sure volunteers like Houghton are given a four-day training course to cover details and the line items to support people filling out their returns.
There are eight sites in Hamilton County that offer VITA assistance as well as four in Bradley County, and sites in Marion, Rhea, and Sequatchie counties, as well.
Each volunteer undergoes at least four days of training in tax law, interview techniques, and how to apply the computer software. And each volunteer must pass several tests to be part of the program.
"There are strict procedures to guard against identity theft and ensure return accuracy," Houghton said. "You don't have to be an accountant — I believe most of the VITA volunteers are not accountants — you just need to be willing to volunteer a few hours a week during tax season and some basic computer knowledge.
VITA: What to bring
* A valid photo ID
* Social Security card for you and any dependents
* Last year's tax return
* Financial documents, including W-2 for yourself and family members, unemployment, pension, interest or other documents that show income
* Bank information for direct deposit
* F1095 health care form if you purchased health insurance through the ACA
* Receipts for large purchases if you are itemizing
For more information, visit ulchatt.net/VITA
"There is no pay, but it is rewarding."
Houghton says the program volunteers see a lot of the same faces each winter. He was quick to praise Peggy Buchanan and Sandra Pickett, each of whom are there with Houghton as the key cogs in the Northside team of VITA workers.
While those needing the help are getting a valuable service, the effort and the time spent have not been without a great deal of satisfaction for Houghton, too.
"There are many stories to be told about our clients, but I remember one young lady — a single mother — struggling to make ends meet while going to school to get a degree," he said. "She was a client of the Northside Neighborhood House, and they referred her to me to save the cost of having her taxes done. We made sure that she was getting all the credits that she was due, such as earned income credit, tuition credit, child tax credit, etc.
"She had recently adopted a special needs child. We had learned in training that there were some special credits in this situation. We double-checked with our IRS coordinator and verified her eligibility.
"She got a substantial refund that year, which was very helpful to helping her get by. She has since obtained a degree and has a full-time job. It is rewarding to have had a part in helping her through a tough time in her life."
As for Houghton, his career as an engineer never really prepared him for his second life as a volunteer accountant. But the lessons learned as a VITA participant have left a lot of memories. And a lasting view of the entire tax process.
"Folks would be better served by painting their house than doing their own taxes," he said. "Even if they don't qualify for free taxes, having it done by someone trained in preparing taxes will result in getting the maximum allowances and credits."
The Northside Neighborhood House VITA branch does returns two days a week and by appointments. For more information, contact the Urban League at (423) 756-1762 and find more sites and hours online at ulchatt.net/VITA.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program sites and times
January 28 - April 14
Brainerd - Belvoir Plaza
3913 Brainerd Rd Suite 112 Chattanooga, TN 37411
Tuesday through Saturday
Opens at 10 a.m.
February 1, 8, 15, 22, 29
Brainerd Recreation (YFD) Center
1010 N. Moore Road Chattanooga, TN 37411
Only open on Saturdays
Opens 10 a.m.
January 25 - April 15
304 Hixson Pike
Chattanooga, TN 37415
Monday at 10 a.m., Wednesday at noon, Saturday at 10 a.m.
February 3 - April 7
Northside Neighborhood House
211 Minor Street Chattanooga, TN 37405
Call (423) 267-2217
February 3 - April 13
Second Missionary Baptist Church
2305 E. Third St. Chattanooga, TN 37404
Call (423) 805-2926
February 4 - April 7
Soddy Daisy Senior Center
190 Depot Street
Soddy Daisy, TN 37379
Call (423) 332-1702
January 30 – March 15
Southern Adventist University
5020 Fleming Plaza Collegedale, TN 37315
Thursday, Friday, Sunday
January 28 - April 14
Urban League of Greater Chattanooga
730 ML King Blvd. Chattanooga, TN 37403
Opens at 9 a.m.
January 31- April 11
Cleveland Community Center
1334 S. Church St. SE, Cleveland, TN 37311
February: Fridays at 10 a.m.
March and April: Saturdays at 10 a.m.
January 30- April 14
CrossNet Baptist Network
2707 N. Ocoee Street, Cleveland, TN 37312
Call (423) 476-5493
January 25 - April 11
Cleveland Bradley Public Library
795 Church Street NE, Cleveland, TN 37411
Saturdays open at 10 a.m.
February 3 - 24
Lee University- Walker Business Bldg.
1120 N Ocoee Street, Cleveland, TN 37311
Call (423) 614-8160
Jackson County, Alabama
Bridgeport Senior Center VITA
411 Alabama Ave. Bridgeport, Al 35740
Call (423) 580-0042
January 15 - December 31
(Old National Guard Armory) 107 E 10th Street
South Pittsburg, TN 37380
Call (423) 580-0042
February 3 - April 3
Orena Humphreys Public Library
1130 N. Main Street, Whitwell, TN 37397
Call (423) 463-7148
January 23 – April 9
February 7 – March 27
Audrey Pack Memorial Library
169 W. Rhea Ave., Spring City, TN 37381
Fridays at 11 a.m.
February 3 - April 3
312 Resource Road, Dunlap, TN 37327
Appointment only Call (423) 949-2191