If you find tax season confounding – or at least an unwelcome nuisance—imagine what it’s like for those who are long retired, speak no English, or have no social-security number.
These folks could go to a tax-preparation company like H & R Block, but the fees for such serves hover around $100.
For hundreds of people locally, a more palatable option is to go to Room 22 at Santa Barbara High School, where teenagers help them fill out the forms for free.
The high school students are members of a club called the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA), which is part of a larger career-preparation course known as Virtual Enterprise.
After revving up again in late January, the annual program is shifting into high gear as the April 15 deadline draws nearer.
In addition to providing a service to low-income families and teaching students the valuable skill of preparing taxes, the program serves a couple of other, lesser-talked-about functions.
For one, it helps the IRS in its quest to collect tax proceeds from undocumented workers, who may otherwise feel too bewildered by the process to know where to begin. It also helps undocumented people become naturalized citizens.
“This is a big service,” said the class’s teacher, Lee Ann Knodel, who is known around campus as Miss B (for Ben-Kinney, her last name before a recent marriage). “We are free, we speak Spanish, and we’re not threatening.”
Santa Barbara High School’s VITA program began in 1997.
Interestingly, its origins were rooted not so much in an earnest desire to teach so much as a desperate need for volunteers. The founder, recently retired IRS agent Bob Correa, for years had struggled to maintain volunteer tax-assistance programs around town. He could get them started, but they would peter out due to the difficulty of finding adult volunteers willing to stick with it.
When his daughter was a student at Santa Barbara High School, a light bulb flashed in his mind: a career-preparation class might be the perfect way to sustain a tax-assistance program in perpetuity.
His daughter recommended he approach Miss B, then a computer-accounting teacher.
“She’s a dynamo,” he said. “My daughter would not have the computer skills she has today without her tutelage.”
He approached her, and the rest is history.
When the program started, it was the only high school in the United States with its own electronic filing identification number—and therefore the capacity to file tax returns from the classroom. (There are several others now.)
Now, the students handle upwards of 600 returns each year, providing more than $50,000 in free services to the low-income and senior communities.
Some of the VITA students themselves come from low-income Spanish-speaking families, and can easily connect with some of the people who need help.
Such clients include undocumented workers without social-security numbers who could easily forego paying their taxes. Many do not receive 1099 forms from their employers, who oftentimes are affluent families in need of hired help, rather than businesses equipped for such formalities.
But it turns out allowing those in the proverbial shadows to skip out on paying taxes hurts not only the public, but the undocumented workers as well.
This is because those who can show the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement department that they’ve paid taxes for 10 consecutive years stand a much greater chance of becoming naturalized citizens.
On the flip side, those who fail to pay taxes run the risk of being deported.
“There is a fear factor,” said Correa, who graduated from Santa Barbara High in 1967.
The students, meanwhile, have worked hard to get to where they are. In order to become certified tax preparers, they must bone up for months and then pass an exam.
Some of the students are interested in one day going into business or accounting. But not all.
“I don’t enjoy doing taxes,” said student Dee Dee Wei. “I don’t plan to work for the IRS. I’m in it because I really like the teacher, Miss B.”
On Thursday, client Ramona Garcia said after she retired from her job as a billing clerk at Mission Linen, she had less money, and the services at tax-preparation company H & R Block grew more expensive. A friend directed her to the student program.
“I feel at ease here, and they do a very good job,” she said. “I’m not a numbers person.”
Not all the customers are undocumented workers or senior citizens. One regular client is Salvador Perez, a big landowner in town, and a kind of class mentor.
Another is Michael Foley, a 1979 graduate of Santa Barbara High School who works construction, and had the foresight to purchase a home in the early 1990s.
Although the value of his home has skyrocketed from around $200,000 to some $800,000, making his mortgage payments can still be a struggle, he said.
“My house is my retirement,” he said. The free income tax service, he added, comes in handy.
The program occurs every Thursday during tax season between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. For more information, call the VITA classroom at 963-8597.