This year, for the first time, South Side residents served by the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers can get free income tax filing services along with their check-ups, pre-natal care or behavioral health services.
The health center at 1337 S. Cesar E. Chavez Dr. is a new site for the Social Development Commission’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, staffed by volunteers who are Northwestern Mutual employees.
“Northwestern Mutual volunteers come back year after year, and that’s helpful to have someone with experience [at a new site],” said Ella Dunbar, SDC program services manager.
The VITA program, now in its 12th year, operates at nearly 20 sites around Milwaukee during tax season. At each site, volunteers offer free income tax preparation and filing services for households that earned less than $56,000 in the previous year. The VITA program also aims to educate participants about the banking system and the basics of financial literacy.
The VITA program helped residents file 15,000 returns last year, growing from 2,700 returns in the program’s first year in Milwaukee, Dunbar said.
The IRS requires all VITA sites to be staffed by volunteer tax preparers, site coordinators and intake specialists. All volunteers must complete a training organized by SDC, during which a CPA provides updates on new tax law. Hands-on computer training simulates different types of returns. Volunteers can be certified as basic, intermediate or advanced.
Dunbar said she expects the program to continue growing, especially if SDC can train more volunteers who are available in the evening and who are bilingual in English and Spanish.
Nate Tritt, Northwestern Mutual employee and volunteer coordinator at the new Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers site, said he began volunteering for the VITA program eight years ago because he likes preparing tax returns. Tritt does not have an accounting background, and said that most other Northwestern Mutual volunteers do not either.
As volunteer coordinator, Tritt is responsible for working with SDC to ensure all volunteers have the required training, and participating in the quality control process for returns prepared at the site.
He said the program is important because many people are not comfortable filing their taxes on their own, and often tax preparation services are costly. “Most people are grateful, especially people using the service for the first time,” noted Tritt. He added that residents are often pleased and surprised when volunteer tax preparers tell them they qualify for a new deduction or credit.
Wayne Heidenreich, who is a Northwestern Mutual employee and member of the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers’ board, helped organize the effort to set up the new site.
He said the VITA program is “consistent with what this clinic is about” because the center has a history of connecting its community to social service programs. According to Heidenreich, the center has built trust in the community through providing quality services, and the VITA program continues that relationship.
“We’re so pleased with it that we really hope to do it next year,” said Heidenreich.
For the rest of this tax season, limited free tax preparation will be available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers site on Thursdays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. through April 11. SDC will also be offering VITA program services at the final Integrated Mobile Monday event, taking place from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. April 15 at Greater New Birth Church, 8237 W. Silver Spring Dr.