It’s a typical scenario during tax season: You give the tax preparer or accountant the documents needed to do your tax return. The tax professional asks you questions needed to complete it. You pay for the service and get your taxes filed.
In a program run by the Cuyahoga EITC Coalition, you’ll never get a tax preparation bill. Many people earning up to $60,000 annually can get their taxes done for free. The coalition wants to do more than just save residents tax prep fees. The goal is to make sure filers, especially those among the working poor, take advantage of tax breaks designed for them, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC.
“It is a refundable tax credit, based on earned income and the number of dependents you have,” said Kathy Matthews, senior program director in Ohio for Enterprise Community Partners, the nonprofit leading the coalition.“Depending on your income, it can mean $560 for an individual, but as much as $6,900 for a family with three children. What’s really important to understand about the Earned Income Tax Credit is that it lifts families up. It keeps them above the poverty line and helps pay rent and utilities, purchase groceries and meet basic needs.”
While the program targets EITC-eligible filers, it also serves working- and middle-class residents who don’t qualify for the tax break but can still get their taxes done for free. The coalition, which surveys program participants, has found that filers using its service save between $350 and $400 in tax preparation and electronic-filing fees.
Jeffrey Denson of Cleveland, a machinist, has been getting his taxes done for three years at a coalition site at Famicos Foundation, a community development corporation, in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.
“It’s free and they do good work,” he said. “Before, I got one of those discs and did my taxes myself on the computer – and ended up owing. Now, I get a refund. “
Tax preparation services are free because the coalition staffs its 13 sites throughout Cuyahoga County with volunteers from the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Some sites, such as Famicos and CHN Housing Partners, operate year round. Volunteers must complete tax preparation training. The program has several funders, including local foundations and banks, AARP, Cuyahoga County and the Internal Revenue Service.
Residents can schedule an appointment at any of the sites on the coalition’s website, refundohio.org, or get information about tax preparation sites and events by calling United Way 2-1-1.
The coalition expects to serve about 11,000 filers this tax season, Matthews said. Volunteers have done 179,000 free tax returns since the program began in 2005.
Marie Drdek of Euclid, a nursing assistant, has had her taxes done at Famicos for eight years. She said the tax preparers “are very thorough,” and “you can’t beat the price.”
“I’ve been here ever since I found out about it,” she said. “Before, I used to go to my mom’s tax guy. I’ve long forgotten his name.”
Not a taxing experience
Drdek keeps returning to Famicos because getting her taxes done there is always a pleasant experience. Filers are met by a greeter who shows them to the waiting area. A preparer meets with them at desks with dividers to aid in confidentiality. Filers hand over documents. Preparers ask questions before disappearing to work on returns in a nearby room that has a bank of desktop computers.
Drdek said she trusts Sadie Sandlin, the Famicos programs and services manager who runs the tax prep program. Drdek said Sandlin carefully explains her return and offers tips about preparing for the next tax year. Drdek and other filers interviewed praised the preparers for accuracy – they said the IRS has never contacted them asking for more information. Part of the reason is that each return undergoes a quality review before it is considered completed.
“I just love Miss Sadie,” Drdek said. “She is just very helpful.”
Sandlin said the program takes a holistic approach to tax prep.
“We see all kinds of people come in,” she said. “It can be a youth and it’s their first time doing taxes. It gives them a chance to get the information right from the beginning, so that they get a good foundation. It can be a widower who never filed taxes. Now, the spouse is gone, and they’re in a position where they’re looking at these papers and they don’t know which way is up. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being there for them, helping them put those papers together, even if they don’t choose to file right away.”
A lot of doing tax returns entails educating clients about the basics of income tax regulations, said Adrienne Mosley, the site coordinator, who is a retired accountant. Sometimes filers become a bit perturbed, for example, when they learn that pandemic-related benefits and increased taxes credits no longer exist. They have asked, “Why is the child tax credit now only $2,000 when it was at least $1,000 higher last year? (The increase was only temporary.)
But more often filers are elated when Mosley can give them tips, such as those on filing a W-2 form or drawing Social Security benefits, that can help them at tax time.
“I like the fact that I can help people, especially seniors, since many of them are on fixed incomes,” she said.
Fostering economic stability
Many of the coalition’s nonprofit organizations see free tax prep as part of their greater mission to increase the economic stability of working people. For example, the mission of coalition leader Enterprise includes creating “platforms for resilience and upward mobility for all” through such things as affordable housing programs and community development. Famicos Homeownership Resource Center provides “a variety of services related to finances and housing.” Programs offered by ESOP include financial counseling and coaching.
Sandlin said when she meets with filers, who may benefit from programs offered by Famicos and other coalition partners, she tells them about them. Volunteers interviewed said they were drawn to the program because of the larger theme of improving economic well-being, especially of the working poor. For example, Esther Samuel, a PhD student in mathematics, feels that she is “giving back to society” by volunteering for the program.
Crystal Watkins likes volunteering because it gives her an opportunity to help filers who are among the working poor and the working class. She has also volunteered for programs aimed at members of these income groups, including teaching financial literacy in schools and teaching a class for people studying for high school diploma equivalency exams.
As an investment banker, most of her clients are affluent, offering a vivid contrast to her coalition clients, who qualify for EITC. Watkins, who is Black, said volunteering at the Famicos site, where many of her clients are also Black, has heightened her interest in finding ways to close the racial wealth gap.
“The bank that I work for, on average, most of our customers are depositing between $100,000 and $250,000,” she said. “It [seeing the racial wealth gap] makes me want to be able to assist my own people to be able to have better resources for themselves.”
For information about similar free income tax programs: irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/