The United Way is facilitating a free tax preparation assistance service for low to moderately low-income residents at the Rohnert Park Health Center on 5900 State Farm Dr. The program first came to Rohnert Park on a smaller scale two years ago, but was not here last year. More than just a tax service, the program also aims to provide financial consulting advice to participants, helping them make wise financial decisions when it comes to allocating where their tax return should go. Tax preparers also help provide resources and information to individuals to help their financial situation.
“There’s a program called the earned income tax credit where low income families – and that can be families with income up to $54,000 – can get tax credit on their federal taxes,” says Don Schwartz, Assistant City Manager for Rohnert Park. “This program that United Way runs, called ‘Earn It! Keep It! Save It!’ provides free help to moderate and low-income families to help them take advantage of that credit. It helps them financially, and it helps our businesses because these folks have more money in their pocket. It’s for people who are working and already paying taxes but they’re getting a little bit of money back.”
The Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, is a benefit for working people with low to moderate income. The exact income needed to qualify depends on how many qualifying children are on the return. To qualify, individuals must file a tax return, even if no taxes are owed or if they are not required to file. Other qualifying criteria include not having investment income exceeding $3,450, not filing a Form 2555 or 2555-EZ EITC, and if the tax payer is not claiming a qualifying child they must have been born on or after Jan. 1, 1953, or on or before Dec. 31, 1992 and cannot be claimed as a qualifying child or dependent on anyone else’s return.
However, even if a household does not qualify for the EITC and even if they are undocumented, they can get free financial advice and tax preparation help through the ‘Earn It! Keep It! Save It!’ program. The program is primarily run by a team of volunteers who go through extensive training with materials provided by the IRS and must pass a certification test in order to ensure all tax returns are prepared accurately. In Sonoma County alone there were 15 sites last year staffed by 148 volunteers who completed 4,200 tax returns. This year United Way expects even more volunteers and tax returns completed.
In 2017, the ‘Earn It! Keep It! Save It!’ program brought more than $7.6 million dollars in tax refunds to residents in Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, $5.9 million of that being in Sonoma County.
“They did it in 2016 [in Rohnert Park], but we didn’t have it last year,” says Schwartz. “Rohnert Park tends to get overlooked sometimes for services like this. There’s a lot offered in Santa Rosa and a lot offered in Petaluma but we’re sometimes seen as fly over territory. There’s a perception, even though we’re the third largest city in the county, that people can travel to those places. We were the last city in the county to get a health center for example. There were 35 of them elsewhere and much smaller cities had two or three before we got our first, which came about three years ago. So this is a program that we think we might have been overlooked in the same way. We’re pleased that the United Way stepped up and offered a service here. It’s kind of new and we’re hoping they can do that every year.”
Besides helping prepare tax returns, the one-hour appointments also serve as a starting point to helping people understand their financial situation better, help them establish priorities, and think through some options they may not have considered. For example, by encouraging participants to save at least a part of their tax refund, they can then have a back up if an unexpected need arises like a car repair or health bill.
“The tax prep is really just an opportunity to get them through the door,” says Suzanne Yeomans, Financial Stability Program Officer for United Way of the Wine Country. “It’s really the gateway to a much bigger financial asset building conversation. While they’re here we incentivize savings…Our average filer tends to have a $24,000 combined household income in Sonoma County – it’s hard to imagine anyone is making that happen. That’s why we know when they walk in the door it’s really important to talk to them about savings and if we find out during the tax return that they don’t have healthcare we’re going to turn them to someone who can help them sit down and navigate that process. If we find out that they’re short on food we’re going to hook them up with where to go to apply for CalFresh. I call it a listening project because while you’re doing their taxes you’re sitting right next to them, you’re showing them how to do their taxes, they’re understanding more about their financial life and you’re talking to them about things they hadn’t considered.”
The Rohnert Park site is taking appointments on Tuesday nights at 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. which started Feb. 6 and running through the tax season. Interested individuals are encouraged to call 800-325-9604 to schedule an appointment in Rohnert Park or at any of the other available sites. At the appointment, tax payers should be prepared with their Photo ID for both them and their spouse, an original social security card or ITIN for each person on the tax return, a W-2 or 1099-MISC for all jobs held in 2017, all 1098’s, 1099’s, 1095-A’s and any other tax forms, a voided check or savings account and a routing number for a direct deposit refund, last year’s tax return if available, childcare provider information with name and address information and landlord’s name, address and phone number for renter’s credit. Volunteers can even help individuals back-file up to three years of taxes if necessary.