MATC employee Nicole Johnson (left) and Milwaukee Campus VITA coordinator
Bobbie Sherrod look over a tax return.
The thought of doing taxes strikes fear and frustration into many people. Questions like - Do I have all the necessary information? Can I figure out what the IRS wants me to do? Must I hire someone to help me through the process? Do I get a refund or do I owe money? - can make April 15 one of the most dreaded days of the year.
For many lower-income people, the thought of paying someone to help them complete their tax returns is discouraging and cost prohibitive. Enter the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) Program to the rescue. In cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue and the Internal Revenue Service, VITA offers a way for many Wisconsin residents to have their basic personal income tax returns completed free of charge.
"MATC has provided a safe and friendly environment where our taxpayers are confident they will get quality tax preparation service and be connected to other services they might need."
-- Sheila Siegel
Accounting students and other volunteers have been performing this service at Milwaukee Area Technical College's Oak Creek Campus for the past 28 years, under the direction of accounting instructor Jim Benedum. In 2003, volunteers also started to offer the service at the Milwaukee Campus. That same year, volunteers at both campuses began to file electronic rather than paper returns.
Jim Benedum, coordinator of the VITA Program at the Oak Creek Campus
for the past 27 years, assists a client.
MATC Volunteers Prepared Nearly 11,000 Federal Returns Since 2003
Bobbie Sherrod, the coordinator of the Milwaukee Campus VITA Program, recently shared information with MATC's District Board of Directors to showcase how many Milwaukee area people have been aided by the program. Since 2003, program volunteers at both campupses have e-filed 10,730 federal returns, netting $10,324,263 in funds returned to community members. (This total includes refunds prepared for individuals at the Milwaukee County House of Correction and in the Milwaukee County Jail, a service Sherrod also provides.)
A major thrust of the program has been to raise awareness of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), designed to help qualifying people who work and have low wages. This is a credit often missed by people who do their own taxes. Since 2003, MATC has filed 3,355 EITC returns for a total of $4,023,466.
Dee Jacobs (right), a long-time volunteer from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, explains a tax rule to a client.
Connecting Lower-Income Clients to Other Services
In addition to helping lower-income individuals and couples receive the money owed them, the VITA program is a source for information on other helpful services. The Milwaukee Campus VITA site works with the Milwaukee Asset Building Coalition (MABC), which is sponsored by the Social Development Commission. The MABC provides Milwaukee Campus site volunteers with information to help clients learn about and take advantage of free health screenings; enroll in benefits programs that provide food stamps and health care; complete federal student aid forms; and access financial services, such as opening checking and savings accounts.
Sheila Siegel, IRS specialist, said, "Many of our low-income taxpayers are intimidated by the processes involved in applying for benefits and services, so they don't get the benefits for which they qualify. MATC has provided a safe and friendly environment where our taxpayers are confident they will get quality tax preparation service and be connected to other services they might need."
Helping lower-income taxpayers learn more about asset building is another goal of the MABC. When taxpayers learn they are getting a refund, it is an opportunity to help them make good financial decisions regarding how to use those funds. By helping connect these individuals and families with personnel at financial institutions who can advise them, it provides an opportunity to learn about asset building opportunities.
According to Siegel, the high rate of direct deposits used at the MATC site indicates that many taxpayers are taking the first steps toward financial stability. "We can use that 'teachable moment' to help them make better financial choices for themselves and their families," Siegel said.