CICF Support Helps Families Gain Assets and Avoid Predatory Preparers
With the IRS April 17 personal income tax filing deadline looming, taxpayers arrive early to use the free tax preparation services at the John H. Boner Community Center. Saturday services began at 10 a.m., but 24 Indianapolis residents sit inside the service center 30 minutes early holding W-2s, property tax statements, car registrations and other forms.
Known to those around her as “Miss Betty,” Betty Thomas-Thompson speaks in overlapping conversations to volunteers, taxpayers and staff alike as she greets all who enter.
“Good morning!” she says. “Hey, Sweetie…you got your property tax receipt, kids’ daycare, all that stuff? Hi girl, I didn’t know you were coming back. Missed you! Love you!”
Miss Betty’s style of welcome is unique to the Boner Center but free tax preparation services are offered at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, sites throughout Indianapolis. The IRS-sponsored VITA program offers free tax help to people who earn less than $49,000. In Indianapolis, 14 VITA sites have filed 4,865 returns from mid-January through March 24, 2012.
The Bottom Line
For taxpayers who qualify for the VITA free tax preparation services, the opportunity to have free, certified preparers means extra savings. While many visit reputable organizations, low- and moderate-income taxpayers have historically been targeted for refund anticipation loans (RALs) or checks (RACs) and highly variable preparation fees. With RALs being phased out, due to changes instituted by the IRS, some payday lenders are offering variations of pay day loans that, like RALs, have very high origination fees and loan rates.
But even for those who have used reputable or discounted services, the promise of free tax preparation is appealing. Taxpayers at the VITA site reported saving between $100 and $400 on the service, in addition to feeling secure that the service would maximize their tax credits and deductions.
“I’m here because it’s free, basically,” says Marian, a woman in her 40s who had a work colleague prepare her return in the past. “Plus, it’s great to be here - they’re organized, know what they’re doing and have a good attitude.”
VITA sites are staffed primarily by volunteers who receive training and certification through standardized programs, all with the goal of helping local Hoosiers file taxes for free. The volunteers work to ensure that working families take advantage of all of the tax credits they are eligible for including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit (CTC) and education credits.
“It’s a lot of fun to work with volunteers and clients here,” says Mike Lynch, a CPA who volunteers his Saturdays to be at the Boner Center. “You feel like you are really helping people out.”
Serving Families through Broad Initiatives
Locally, VITA preparation sites like the Boner Center are a part of Indy’s Campaign for Financial Fitness, a coalition of public and private organizations that helps Indianapolis residents and their families manage their finances more wisely through education and targeted programs. The three Campaign pillars are tax preparation help, financial education, and Bank On Indy, an effort to get the “unbanked” access to low- or no-cost banking services.
The Boner Center is among several local VITA sites that are also a part of CICF’s Family Success/Center for Working Families network including Southeast Community Services, Hawthorne Community Center and Mary Rigg Community Center. Through an Indianapolis Foundation grant, CICF supports Center for Working Families efforts, best practice model that helps low-income families reach financial stability and move up the economic ladder.
After a volunteer helps draft a return at the Boner Center, taxpayers move on to the “Quality Control” area. There, they talk with staff trained both to double-check returns and provide the kind of financial advice that the Center for Working Families model specializes in. With perspectives on paying down debts, utilizing returns to improve financial stability and on planning for next year’s withholding, the staff gives valuable help. But they can also connect taxpayers to additional help with employment searches and financial literacy.
A Focus on Customer Service
If the Center for Working Families and the Indy Campaign for Financial Fitness are focused on building financial stability, the Boner Center wants to build it with a focus on customer service.
“We want to provide good customer service,” says Bianca Baird, Asset Development Coordinator for the Boner Center. “We recognize that each person is different and we work hard to meet each person’s needs.”
You can make a difference!
For more information about the free tax preparation services available through the VITA program, click here!