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North Coast families can benefit from free tax preparation services

NEED HELP?

To participate in the United Way's "Earn it, Keep It, Save It" program call 211 or head

here

Maria Reyes said she was raised to believe if something is offered for free, it’s probably too good to be true.

But Reyes said she’s changed her tune now after receiving free tax preparation service, including filing, as part of the “Earn It, Keep It, Save It” United Way-led program for low- and middle-income families in Northern California.

The tax preparation service Reyes went to last year charged her $150. Reyes, a mother of two girls and a student at Santa Rosa Junior College, had to wait an hour before seeing the preparer, who didn’t explain any of the deductions or credits she received during the process.

This year, Reyes said, she easily made an appointment by calling 211. She had a preparer who explained to her all of her tax credits. In fact, the preparer found mistakes in past returns in which she was listed as single as opposed to head of household, entitling her to an even bigger refund.

“Compared to where I have been in past years, this was a lot more one on one,” Reyes said. “Now, it seemed like they really cared.”

The volunteer effort brought back almost $5.8 million in federal and state tax refunds last year to residents in Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Del Norte and Humboldt counties, according to Rusty Smith, vice president for United Way of the Wine Country. The program targets households earning $54,000 or less annually.

It so far has helped 3,400 families file their taxes this year and has room for another 1,900 families - but they are urged to make an appointment as soon as possible, said Suzanne Yeomans, income program officer at the United Way.

“Don’t wait until the last week to get an appointment,” Yeomans said.

Among those to get assistance Wednesday was Darlene Klaiber, a Santa Rosa in-home care worker who was expecting to owe $1,700. But after consulting with volunteers who found certain deductions, Klaiber was surprised to learn she was getting a refund.

“I was just so ecstatic,” Klaiber said. “Instead of a negative, it went to a positive. They are all so experienced. I was very impressed.”

Matthew Brooks, 19, also of Santa Rosa, was not so lucky. The recent Analy High School graduate earned about $8,000 working part time as a restaurant busboy. But with investment income from a stock portfolio he got from his parents, he ended up owing $14.

Still, it was a relatively painless experience and didn’t cost anything for the service, said his mother, Karen Brooks.

“It was pretty simple,” his mother said. “He just brought in his W2s. They punched everything into the software and it was done.”

Many families using the service are eligible for the federal earned- income tax credit, given to low- and moderate-income workers, yet one in five eligible workers do not claim it, according to IRS estimates. The elderly, workers with disabilities, grandparents raising children, those not proficient in English and rural residents are most likely not to claim the credit.

There is even more reason for low-income families to know about credits and deductions available to them this year because California has joined 25 other states to offer a state earned-income tax credit. The state tax credit is available for individuals earning up to $6,580 annually and for families with three or more dependents earning up to $13,870 a year.

“I actually had a friendly person who was doing my taxes,” said Reyes, who works for a medical nonprofit and is training to be a nurse.

She plans to use her refund to boost her savings and start accounts for her daughters. “To me, it was wonderful,” Reyes said.

The preparers are typically retired accountants, all of whom must go through a three-day training program, said Jennifer O’Donnell, vice president of community benefit for United Way. They also must be certified by the IRS. The program has had a far lower error rate than many self- and paid-tax preparation services, Smith noted, with an accuracy rate of 94 percent in 2015.

Reyes said she was so satisfied with her experience that she is telling her friends, and she has no plans to go back to paid services. “It’s definitely better quality and a better use of money,” she said.

Staff Writer Paul Payne contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

NEED HELP?

To participate in the United Way's "Earn it, Keep It, Save It" program call 211 or head

here

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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