Low-income Chicagoans can put money back in their pockets by taking advantage of a city program that provides help understanding and filing federal and state income tax returns. And the program is free, according to Chicago Budget Director John Harris.

The tax sites will be open from Jan. 29 to the April 15 filing deadline. The earlier you apply, the earlier you get your refund, Harris said.

If a taxpayer with two children earns less than $35,000, she or he is eligible for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. This provides an opportunity for low-income individuals to lower their taxes or claim a refund. Many of those who qualify for this program also can get free tax preparation and electronic filing from volunteer tax professionals, including the City of Chicago.

Mayor Daley’s sixth annual tax campaign provides assistance at 31 sites throughout the city.

According to David Marzahl, spokesperson for the Center for Economic Progress?”a nonprofit organization that helps low-income families secure help with financial matters?”the staff at the sites work fast and electronically. They also help residents file various education credit and other tax benefits. The average refund is about $1,500, and sometimes eligible families can receive up to $4,300.

“Our 1,000-plus volunteers come from all walks of life, but are trained to prepare federal and state income tax returns using the newest tax software,” Marzahl said.

The tax programs encourage taxpayers to deposit their refund into a bank account, Marzahl said. About 12 banks and credit unions will have bank representatives located at the tax centers to assist low-income families open accounts. Residents may then receive their refund through direct deposit in as little as two weeks.

“Given the challenges people face economically, getting their money back fast makes a real difference,” Marzahl said.

Household income and the number of children in the home determine the refund amount. General requirements for eligibility include having an earned income and being a U.S. citizen or resident alien. Eligible taxpayers should bring a photo ID, all 2004 W2 forms, each household member’s social security card and a 2003 tax return copy.

“Any time you can give something back, that’s a good thing,” said South Side resident Patricia Common. “I work at a seniors home and some of them could really benefit from this program.”

“My brother actually benefits from it,” said William Torres of Logan Square. “He gets to pay off a lot of bills and things he has on back pay.”

Some residents said the program’s income eligibility should be extended.

“I think it’s a good thing, but they need to up the cutoff because someone making $50,000 a year is still low-income with current day prices,” said Roseland resident Rocenetta Jacobs. “I’m a teacher, and in gas alone sometimes I pay $894, which takes up a lot of a teacher’s salary each month.”

To find the nearest location, call 311 City Services or 312/409-1555.