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Baltimore CASH Campaign offers free tax preparation services for low-to-middle income families

Baltimore CASH Campaign offers free tax preparation services for low-to-middle income families
Tonette Johnson of Baltimore, left, works with Briana Roberson, right, who is the financial coaching coordinator for the Baltimore CASH Campaign, at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central library last year. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore CASH Campaign kicked off the tax season on Friday with an event to raise awareness about its free tax-filing services and the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program to aid working families.

Now in its 16th year, the CASH campaign provides free tax preparation services to families and individuals who earn less than $54,000 a year. The nonprofit has 13 sites in Baltimore and two in Baltimore County, all staffed with volunteers certified by the Internal Revenue Service to help people electronically file their taxes.

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A major part of the organization's work is to raise awareness about the federal and state tax credits available for low-to-moderate-income working families, many of whom do not know about the credit and are missing out on thousands of dollars, said Sara Johnson, the CASH Campaign's director.

The IRS estimates that about four out of five people eligible for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit claim it. The program paid out about $66.7 billion in tax credits to 27.5 million households for the 2014 tax year, with an average credit of more than $2,400.

"As good as the numbers are, they could be better," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who spoke at the event at Union Baptist Church in Baltimore. "Millions more miss out because they don't know or don't realize they are eligible for coverage."

In the 2012 tax year, 131,300 eligible Maryland households left $81.3 million on the table in federal Earned Income Tax Credits, according to a 2015 report by the state's Department of Legislative Services. About 800 taxpayers did not claim $24.5 million in Maryland Earned Income Tax Credits.

Eligibility for the tax credits depends on income level, marital status and number of children.

For example, a married couple with three or more children must have a household income of less than $53,505 to qualify for a federal tax credit of up to $6,269 for tax year 2016, according to the IRS.

The Maryland Earned Income Tax Credit is worth up to a quarter the value of the federal credit.

In addition to making sure Marylanders owed a tax credit claim it, Baltimore CASH Campaign works to improve taxpayers' financial literacy, said Johnson, the organization's director. While they're in to do their taxes, people can also get financial advice about how to create a budget for their family and ways to build savings.

One of the program's success stories, April Bradley, spoke during Friday's event. The 33-year-old Baltimore resident said she used to spend frivolously, but thanks to Baltimore CASH Campaign, started putting more money, including her most recent federal tax refund, into savings bonds.

She recently cashed out some of her savings to buy her first home, a four-bedroom, two-bathroom rowhouse in Baltimore's Forest Park neighborhood.

"There's no amount of shoes or bags that could make me feel as happy as I feel," Bradley said.

A list of Baltimore CASH Campaign's free tax preparation sites is available online at www.bmorefreetaxes.org.

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