By: Laura Freeze
It may seem counter-intuitive, but offering free tax preparation services to low- to moderate-income families in the Bay Area can be an ideal space for innovation. Nowhere was this more evident than at the annual Earn It! Keep It! Save It! (EKS) conference, which was held last week at Preservation Park in Oakland, California.
The conference attracted more than 100 participants from eight Bay Area counties, who represented local nonprofits, colleges, credit unions, and city governments. Those in attendance are coordinators of EKS tax sites, which are usually volunteer-run and provide free tax preparation for filers earning $54,000 or less.
Presenters included United Way staff, IRS and California Franchise Tax Board representatives, Alameda County Social Services Agency, and the Contra Costa County Employment & Human Services.
Many sites provide more than just tax preparation. A majority of participating organizations offer the ability for taxpayers to put their refund into a savings account, enroll in CalWORKs, and connect to other vital services. Tax preparation is often a gateway to other services, and the EKS annual conference is where participants share those best practices.
With the focus perennially on innovation, the conference provided training and resources on two significant fronts: the California Earned Income Tax Credit (Cal EITC) and new tax software, Taxslayer.
Chris Smith with the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) discussed learnings from the first year of California EITC outreach efforts. “FTB is very much behind making the Cal EITC a success,” he said. “We identified approximately 55,000 people who may have qualified for Cal EITC [last year] based on their return, but did not claim it. We want to reach more people and get more dollars out to California’s hard-working families.”
Vanessa Muniz, EKS Program Director, agrees, “United Way receiving a Cal EITC education and outreach grant is going to be a great opportunity for us to increase awareness of our program. Hopefully it will increase the number of clients we serve.”
In addition, with new tax software being rolled out, this will result in noticeable changes in training for EKS volunteers, but not for the quality of service provided.
A husband-wife team of site coordinators at San Antonio CDC in Oakland, Steve and Patricia Constantine, have been volunteering for the past 14 years. Patricia shared, “It is beautiful seeing old clients and then meeting new clients by making sure they are satisfied and that their taxes done correctly.” While the Constantines are both seasoned experts, they came to learn more about the new tax software and “how to navigate through it better.”
At the conference, site coordinators look forward to sharing new information with each other as well, while preparing for the tax season ahead.
A site coordinator from SparkPoint Marin, Axel Flores, said, “There is always something new to learn, to see what other site coordinators are doing.”
“It is a very natural setting for organic collaboration and networking,” Muniz said. “We will have plenty of challenges this year, but there is also all this opportunity to increase our impact and footprint in the community.”
Earn It! Keep It! Save It!, a program of United Way Bay Area, provides free tax preparation to low- to moderate-income Bay Area households. In 2016, more than 3,500 trained volunteers provided free tax preparation for over 80,000 households, which brought over $85 million back in refunds to our local economy.