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Free tax preparation, plus a lot more

If you don't make a lot of money, the Baltimore CASH Campaign thinks you shouldn't be forking any of it over to get your tax returns prepared.

The nonprofit group is heading into its 11th tax season, offering free help for low- and moderate-income area residents. It's part of an effort to bolster families' financial security — "CASH" stands for Creating Assets, Savings and Hope.

Staff and volunteers, who will officially begin the season Tuesday, help people determine the tax breaks they're eligible to receive and can direct tax refunds into savings bonds to build nest eggs.

Director Sara Johnson volunteered at the organization before taking the helm in 2010 — a seemingly inevitable move. Her three previous jobs were at Seedco, the United Way of Central Maryland and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, all either partners or funders of the Baltimore CASH Campaign.

Johnson, 38, lives in East Baltimore with her husband, Jay Moore. She talked with The Baltimore Sun recently about tax refunds, the rough economy's effect on families and who is eligible for her group's help. (Residents may call 410-234-8008 to make an appointment.)

How many people does the Baltimore CASH Campaign expect to help with their income taxes this year?

Well, last year we served over 8,500 filers … and that resulted in about $17.5 million back to the city [in refunds to residents] in both state and federal returns [and] in addition to that, $5.4 million in the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The number that I love the most is $1.2 million saved in fees from people coming to our sites to get their taxes done for free instead of paying for expensive tax preparation.

This year our goal is, I hope, to file about 9,000 [returns]. So we're upping the ante this year.

What's the average refund?

With the Earned Income Tax Credit as well as any refund they're owed from the feds or the state, for our clients [it] is about $2,000. When you add on top of that that they've also saved hundreds of dollars by not paying someone to file their return, we think that really adds up to a good chunk of money not coming out of people's pockets.

At tax time, we help people open savings bonds, savings accounts, purchase CDs, put the money directly onto a prepaid card. … And people really love the savings bonds.

What other help are you providing?

We talk with people about opportunities to save — that's one of the biggest services we provide at tax time. Because a lot of our sites are also co-located within community action centers … folks can also take advantage of some of the other services being provided at these other locations. And after tax season, we really help people figure out opportunities to continue to save.

How do you work with families on financial stability? What does that entail?

One of the things we do is offer … a financial fitness series at the Enoch Pratt Library. I think our one coming up next month is on money and family … budgeting with your significant other.

We also have a "cash coach" program. So this is one-on-one financial coaching … [by] volunteers, often from the financial services industry, that help people reach their financial goals.

Last year we had over $1 million returned to families we were serving just in public benefits we were able to find them eligible for, anything from energy assistance … to health insurance programs.

We're really trying to do a couple things. The first is helping people take advantage of what money might be available to them, and also doing financial educating to make sure people aren't being taken advantage of. … There's a lot of scams and predatory practices out there.

Any charge for your help?

All of our help is free, believe it or not. … When we say "free," we mean really free. One of the things we've noticed lately is some of the paid preparers … doing promotions around "free." It's buyer beware. … It's really important to educate people to be very careful about promotions that might seem too good to be true.

There is an income guideline for families we serve. Because we're an IRS-certified program, we follow the IRS guidelines: … A family of two or more that made $50,000 or less in 2011, or a single filer who made $25,000 or less.

And if people are interested in getting involved, we recruit, train and certify over 200 volunteers every year to do free tax preparation. … They take about 12 hours of tax training and pass an IRS certification.

What is the Earned Income Tax Credit?

The Earned Income Tax Credit has been around for many years. It's actually the largest anti-poverty program in the United States. It's what's called a refundable credit — you actually get a cash benefit.

There's lots of other tax credits. There's child dependent credits, there's education credits. We make sure everyone is getting connected to all these credits.

What we learn from our clients when we survey them, they're using the earned income credit to pay off bills: energy bills, credit card bills and health bills [especially]. So we know this money is going right back into the economy to pay down debts and keep people housed and keep people moving along.

What are the common stumbling blocks you see in the struggle for financial stability, and what advice do you give?

There's some common mistakes, overdraft things, or simple things people can do to save money. It's sort of like the leaky faucet. You don't realize how much is leaking out until you put a bucket under it. It's those simple things [that can be solved] with some financial coaching and connecting with mainstream products.

Lately, with the economy being the way it is, it's really just been an issue of income. It hasn't been necessarily someone doing something wrong, but really struggling to keep the income flowing. Last year, the biggest thing we were hearing from our sites is people were coming in just with unemployment income; they didn't have earned income to claim.

We'll see what happens this tax season, if that holds true again. Believe it or not, though, despite some of the struggles, as we see some of the families' incomes dwindling they're still buying savings bonds. They're still trying to save for the future.

How has the economy affected the Baltimore CASH Campaign itself? Are funding sources drying up?

I have to say we've been very fortunate. We're supported by a lot of great foundations in the Baltimore area that have really funded us since the beginning to help grow our work.

How can residents find your sites?

People can find out what's closest to them by going to our website, which is … You can actually make an appointment right online. That's a new feature we've added this year.

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