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Washtenaw United: VITA's volunteers are ready for 2023 tax season

United Way of Washtenaw County vice president of development Susan Smith.
United Way of Washtenaw County
United Way of Washtenaw County vice president of development Susan Smith.


Susan Smith currently serves as the VP of Development with United Way of Washtenaw County and an Eastern Michigan University Alumnus. Susan is a proud mom of two school-aged girls and deeply enjoys the adventures of parenting alongside her husband. Serving the community continues to be the focus of her career and she could not imagine investing her time anywhere else.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and today we're going to talk taxes--tax assistance, more specifically. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. For all too many, getting taxes done and filed by a professional is too expensive. So, if you need help, where do you turn? Well, in Washtenaw County, there is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, or VITA. It is often referred to that way, and this year's efforts officially begin tomorrow, February 1st. Here to help us understand all that is available and how to access it is Susan Smith. Susan is vice president of development at the United Way of Washtenaw County. And thank you for the time today, Susan.

Susan Smith: Hi! I'm happy to be here. Thank you for having me on, David.

David Fair: Now, the voter program is actually a federal program offered through the IRS. How did the United Way of Washtenaw County end up getting involved?

Susan Smith: Oh, boy. This is one of those programs that we started several years ago. And, like many things, it starts with the community stating that there is a need. And then there are volunteers to come forward and say, "Hey, I can help with this." One of the volunteers who's instrumental in bringing this forward is Robert "Bob" Moore, that most people know him by, who has helped to bring this program to Washtenaw County, specifically to our United Way, and continues to be involved as a volunteer each year since we began.

David Fair: So, with each passing year, are there more people learning about the VITA program, and are more people taking advantage?

Susan Smith: Yes. So, we were on track pre-pandemic—

David Fair: That affects everything, doesn't it?

Susan Smith: Right. And, every year, we had more and more people sign up to do this in person. And we were able to bring back, you know, more and more credits and refunds to Washtenaw County. And then, when the pandemic hit, everything went remote. And, as you can imagine how challenging it is, even for somebody who has access to technology and is able to scan documents over and has a home where they have a specific place where they're keeping all of these things, transportation to get, you know, to the scanning place and the health to do so, many of these doctors were working against people the last couple of years, which is why we are very excited to be back in person.

David Fair: I was going to say everything is back in person this year.

Susan Smith: Yeah. Yes.

David Fair: And that certainly is resuming. How many volunteers, when it's in person, does it take to get all of these tax preparation forms completed?

Susan Smith: Well, we currently have about 40 volunteers signed up to support this work, and we're always looking for more.

David Fair: Yeah, weren't there 80 at one point?

Susan Smith: Yeah, we had close to 100 at one point again, pre-pandemic levels when we were able to do this in-person. As you can imagine, trying to file taxes remotely for a lot of our volunteers was challenging as it was challenging for our clients. So, we did see a decline during COVID and are looking forward to seeing the numbers trend back up, as we're able to support people who their comfort is being able to do this in-person.

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Susan Smith from the United Way of Washtenaw County continues on 89 one WEMU. And, again, I want to mention we're talking about the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Susan, if I were to seek out such assistance, how can I be assured that the person helping me--the volunteer--is qualified to do so?

Susan Smith: Oh, we have training that every volunteer who is part of the tax preparation team follows the IRS guidelines. Also, we talk about some of our key volunteers. We have a review process that each of the tax returns goes through, which is almost, by the, you know, lead, you know, tax preparer reviewer, who has those kinds of tax background and credentials, because many of our volunteers come in and do the training, but they're likely not a CPA. And so, we always like to share that, too, because some people have barriers to coming in and helping to volunteer with VITA, they think they need to be a tax preparer by profession, and that is not the case. We do have people at that advanced level who are able to review the tax returns before they're filed for accuracy, to be sure our clients are well taken care of, but we have many opportunities for folks to support this work outside of having that deep tax knowledge.

David Fair: Are there protections in place, should a tax return be filed incorrectly?

Susan Smith: Absolutely. We have a direct line to be able to contact the IRS to make corrections and amends. And we do work with clients who may find themselves in that situation or may find that they need to file taxes for more than one year.

David Fair: So, as we all know, the tax code is complicated. It changes frequently. So, each year, I would assume there are updates to the training that the volunteers receive.

Susan Smith: Yes. Yes. The training is updated annually for volunteers, and we request that they go through it in order to be able to continue to pursue volunteering here with VITA. That's really important to our volunteers. They take great pride in the work that they're able to do to return back to the community. And they're in very good hands.

David Fair: In Governor Whitmer's State of the State address, she said she wanted to, among the first things, is change the earned income tax credit that can help low- and moderate-income households. And that, in fact, is happening. And it will go from 6% to 30% of federal rate, which is, you know, a five-fold change. But that also means that people have to be aware of how to ask for and make sure that they qualify and get that on their tax return. So, these updated legislations. That will be a part of the 2022 tax filing forms?

Susan Smith: I believe that this is definitely going to be part of it. What I'm reading right now is that what they're looking at is helping to bring people in who maybe haven't had the need for filing taxes in the past because they may qualify for this. And so, what we're working on as well is just continuing to schedule people. And then, the team is reviewing always when these updates come out and how to apply them moving forward. But please know that, yes, any changes that happen within the tax code are reviewed by the team, and they implement as needed on taxes.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking Volunteer Tax Assistance with the vice president of development at the United Way of Washtenaw County, Susan Smith, here on WEMU's Washtenaw United. Susan, let's talk some nuts and bolts. Who actually qualifies for the VITA program?

Susan Smith: So, people who qualify for the VITA program are folks who earn less than $60,000 annually and they live...well, we serve Washtenaw County. So, the vast majority of the folks that come through our door, if not all of them, are local to Washtenaw County. I can share really the average age of our tax program participant is 57. And, you know, well, I'm looking at our data now, and it looks like 25% of them actually received their earned income tax credit last year. So, we're really excited to be able to bring that new legislation forward for folks this year, too.

David Fair: And how and where can I meet with a volunteer preparer?

Susan Smith: Well, you can call. It all starts with 211. So, we encourage folks to call 211 in order to schedule their appointments. And we are having in-person tax preparation happening at our United Way office on Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and again from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.. And we also have time available on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It is by appointment only because we want to be sure they have all the right documentation, we have the right volunteers, and we're able to provide the service that they need to have their taxes done properly.

David Fair: Now, you know, this is a community full of creative people and people who get involved in a variety of ways and kind of do-it-yourself projects. If I want to do my own taxes, but I'm a little out of the woods as to how, as I understand it, there are free programs that I can utilize to get the forms completed and submitted.

Susan Smith: There are. And, actually, it's called MyFreeTaxes.

David Fair: Oh, well, very convenient.

Susan Smith: There you go. So, yeah, visit MyFreeTaxes dot com, if they should be open and available for folks to go in and get their taxes done.

David Fair: So, in the end, and you may have touched on it, but in the end, those who have utilized the services and the VITA program in Washtenaw County, are they getting refunds in the end?

Susan Smith: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. In fact, even before we're open to receive appointments, we've always gotten so many calls from people because the majority of the folks who go through our program do get refunds. And those refunds go toward supporting them with, you know, paying bills, catching up on some of maybe their savings, using it to pay rent. I talked to one person who used it to purchase items that they weren't able to do throughout the year, like going to the supermarket. She looked at each thing she had to put back throughout the year. And then, when she gets her tax refund, she goes in and buys these items. And they're not luxury items. It's things that she denies herself each year because it's not in her annual household budget.

David Fair: Well, Susan, obviously, things are kicking off in earnest tomorrow on February 1st, and the tax deadline is April 15th for those who don't file an extension. So, we'll be monitoring throughout and look forward to hearing how this year turned out.

Susan Smith: Yes, absolutely. And a big thank you to the community, to the volunteers, and the folks that make this happen. We couldn't do it without you. So, thank you again.

David Fair: That is Susan Smith. She serves as vice president of development at the United Way of Washtenaw County. She joined us today to talk about the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Now, if you want more information, you'll find it on our website at WEMU dot org. And whatever information isn't there, we'll have links to get you there. I'm David Fair, and I invite you to join us next Monday for another edition of Washtenaw United. You find it only on your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA)

Volunteer for VITA

2021 VITA One-pager

VITA Stories of Impact

MyFreeTaxes by United Way


Join our community of over 80 volunteers in working to complete federal and state tax returns for low to moderate income families. Volunteer to help clients save tens of thousands in costly tax preparation fess and put over $1.4 million of refunds into the hands of those that need it most. Resources that can be used to pay overdue bills, make car repairs, save for the future, and bolster the local economy.

No experience? No problem! Our comprehensive training process will give you the skills and knowledge necessary to prepare basic tax returns.

Call 2-1-1 to schedule an appointment.

Visit our site for information about volunteering.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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