Outreach helps thousands of low income taxpayers

Taxpayers in the Miami-Dade County area had expert help during the January-April tax filing season and will have year-round access to financial education, thanks to local non-profit Branches Inc., local United Methodist Churches and the United Way. 

As the April 18 tax filing deadline approached, staff and volunteers for the Branches organization were located in area churches and other sites, implementing the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service.  VITA is designed to help residents receive all the tax credits they qualify for.

Branches was established in 1973 as the urban and social justice agency of what is now the Southeast District of the Florida UMC.  Branches’ mission is to serve, educate and inspire people through financial stability services in partnership with their communities and it is the lead agency for VITA in the area.

Isabelle Pike, development director at Branches, said, “This is definitely a faith based effort, and partnerships with VITA, local churches and the United Way help make it successful,” she said.  The task for tax time is startling in its statistics.  “Fully 80 percent of people in Miami-Dade counties qualify for VITA.    That means they have a family income of $54,000 or less and are entitled to tax refunds based on special tax credits such as the earned income tax credit, child tax credit and credit for the elderly or the disabled,” Pike said. “But less than two percent currently take advantage of this opportunity,” she said.

Last year during the 2014 tax filing season, the Branches/ VITA partnership prepared 8,661 tax returns and secured over $10.8 million in refunds, according to Pike. For the 2016 season, 461 IRS-trained VITA volunteers worked at about 30 different locations, including robust activity at Florida City UMC, Fulford UMC and Westwood UMC.  This year’s goal was to prepare 9,600 returns and secure over $11 million in refunds.

Branches financial coach Rudy Tabares stayed busy during the 2016 tax season.

But this program is not just about numbers.  It’s also about trust.  Many would-be taxpayers have been victims of scams and identity theft due to their lack of education about the tax filing process. Since VITA locations are often in churches where people of faith congregate, residents feel more comfortable coming for help.

Kim Torres, a United Methodist missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries, has been active in the Miami-Dade area for 18 years and has a unique perspective on the local tax-related outreach. She works at Branches Florida City as director of student services.

“It’s important that we serve our community, and tax filing is an area where there are gaps,” Torres said.  “When these people see that they can get quality and honest help, it makes an impact here.  There are so many people trying to take advantage of them.”

The mission organizations she’s been a part of have changed names and focus over the years, but throughout, the mission and local churches have worked together closely to serve the area. “For many people, unfiled taxes from past years can be a significant issue and Branches can file up to three years’ of back taxes in addition to the current year,” she said. This also builds trust in the neighborhoods, she added.

Faith partners and congregations of all shapes and sizes support the mission of Branches in a number of ways, from providing volunteers and donations to praying for this mission, Pike said. Among the many supporters are the Southeast District of the Florida Conference, The Florida United Methodist Foundation, Inc. and the Florida Conference. During tax season the local United Way has led the public relations effort with radio spots, bus shelter signs and billboards to encourage people to come forward without fear of being ripped off.

Torres said local churches’ participation in VITA helps people understand their rights and provides a safe place where they can ask questions freely and perhaps continue learning how to achieve better financial stability.  “As for the organizations and volunteers who serve in these ways, it’s a way to be faithful representatives of Christ in the community,” Torres said.

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