Final Tally of Free Tax Services Totaled Success
APRIL 18, 2018
The Kansas City, MO State Office Building closed its doors to low-income residents who waited in line for hours every tax season for free tax help and information on how to receive their Missouri property tax rebates. The “Welcome” sign was replaced with another, “Find a VITA site.”
United Way of Greater Kansas City in partnership with Next Step KC operates several IRS-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) tax preparation sites in the Kansas City area. VITA offers free services to hard-working taxpayers with incomes of $60,000 and below, and for those who cannot prepare their own tax returns.
Three years ago, the VITA sites were overwhelmed and constantly having to close early due to capacity, meaning they were unable to help the elderly, disabled, and low-income people in the Kansas City Urban Core area. Jim Meyer, VITA site director, visited Connecting For Good two years ago in search for a larger public space in an area where residents could easily access.
“We just had these [small] sites where we would do 100 returns here and a 100 returns there. We couldn’t serve the number of people that really need the services,” said Meyer. “Every one of the sites we had were being overrun with people and we just couldn’t do it. There were low-income people hunting around the city for an hour here and an hour there. I didn’t think that was fair.”
After seeing the space and waiting area at Connecting For Good’s Kansas City, MO, location, known as LAMP. Meyer said joining forces was a “no-brainer.” Currently he has 33 volunteers, who are both retired and employed. VITA is open on Tuesday from 1PM-7PM and Wednesday through Saturday from 9AM-3PM. In total, the team helps at least 20 people a day, 30 hours per week.
“We’re better able to serve the public when we are at a site that is open during the evenings, and having a Saturday operation makes all of the difference because we are able to pick up the working people,” said Meyer. “I have a 10-person team on Saturday and we can get 70 returns finished.”
Connecting For Good (CFG) is located in the heart of an underserved community and has a reputation for serving those who need help connecting and learning about how to use the internet safely. Some individuals and families can only find services like VITA through word of mouth. Connecting For Good offers free WiFi and computer use, making it easier to search for operations that can better assist their needs. Most of the people who walk through CFG’s doors are making under 60k a year, and for the volunteers at VITA, it is eye opening.
“I think anytime anyone who comes and volunteers at a site like this has an eye opening experience if they are not used to working with the Urban Core,” said Meyer. “It’s very valuable to work here. A lot of people who I have on my team want to serve the low-income population; They are here to serve those in need.”
Three years ago, Meyer went to the State Office pleading for office space equipped with computers. He asked, “We want to centralize all of these people [who need our services], will you give us office space and computers and we will run the show? All we need are computers and a place to have people.”
In 2017, when VITA was located at the Full Employment Council at 18th and Paseo, they filed less than 500 taxes. This year, over 2,000 were filed at CFG’s LAMP location, increasing the total number of Urban Core residents’ tax returns processed by over 400 percent.This makes Connecting For Good the largest and most successful VITA operation site.
Tom Esselman, CEO, explains how important it is for services like VITA to have public spaces that offer free internet access and computers.
“The work Connecting For Good does to provide digital inclusion is like a tree. The technology parts–internet access and computer devices–are the roots. Without them you cannot access vital information. But, what the community needs to see–the tree trunk and the branches–is the way digital skills improve lives,” said Esselman. “In this case, making online tax filing available to low income residents, many of whom qualify for tax refunds, has an immediate and lasting impact on the lives and families of our urban core neighborhoods.”