On a warm Saturday in February, some volunteers holed up inside an Allan Hancock College building solely to help strangers — by completing their tax returns.
Northern Santa Barbara County United Way operates the Santa Maria Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program in partnership with Cal Poly accounting students and Hancock College. The program is aimed at low- and moderate-income families and individuals.
“It’s just fun to help our community and see hundreds of people come through and millions of bucks come back to the community,” said Cary Gray, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel marking his 15th year with the Santa Maria VITA program, where he serves as site coordinator.
Taxpayers’ first step, according to Gray, should be accessing the myfreetaxes.org website.
“They can do taxes there, they can set up an appointment and they can ask for assistance,” Gray said. “That’s the real key.”
Help through VITA also is available on the South Coast through United Way of Santa Barbara County. Sites providing tax help and other information can be found by clicking here.
Before the inaugural day of doing taxes, Santa Maria VITA volunteers first completed three Saturdays of training.
“I just love them to death,” Gray said. “Some of them come back every year. There’s probably 10% are people that come back every year because they want to serve and do the taxes for people.”
It’s not just the volunteers who return to the Santa Maria VITA program.
“There’s a lot of people who come back,” Monica Rivas of the Northern Santa Barbara County United Way said.
The volunteers can help taxpayers untangle the complex process and access tax credits that might otherwise elude them.
Cal Poly students or advanced preparers who volunteered in the past will review completed tax returns and handle more complex tax returns.
“We love to have them here,” Gray said.
Taxpayers must be vaccinated to enter the site, with a health checkpoint set up outside the Hancock College Community Education building.
“We will assist them if they’re not (vaccinated), but from their car,” Rivas said.
Northern Santa Barbara County United Way estimated the VITA program has filed tax returns for 20,000 individuals and families through the VITA program since 2008.
“Anyone can help, they just have to take the course to get certified,” Rivas said.
That 27-hour course — three Saturdays — reviews tax law and tax software.
This year marks the 30th year that Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business students have prepared tax returns for area residents for free. In addition to the Santa Maria site, the Cal Poly students assist taxpayers at a Oceano location and the Cal Poly campus.
Cal Poly hosted its first VITA clinic in 1972, but clinics occurred periodically until becoming an annual endeavor in 1992, Cal Poly representative said.
Since 2005, Orfalea College of Business students have prepared more than 9,000 returns, assisting about 750 San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties residents annually.
VITA free tax help is available to people who make no more than $58,000, people with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers needing assistance.
Clients should plan to be at the Hancock College site at least an hour and possibly longer.
They should bring identification, their Social Security number and any IRS forms — especially the letter about the stimulus payment.
The Santa Maria VITA program occurs at Hancock’s Community Education Center (Building S-103) on the Santa Maria campus, 800 S. College Drive.
Seven Saturday sessions are planned with the program closed Feb. 19, March 26 and April 2.
Tax returns for 2021 are due April 18, three days later than planned because April 15 coincides the Emancipation Day holiday in Washington, D.C., according to the Internal Revenue Service.
Appointments are highly recommended for all VITA sites and can be made by visiting myfreetaxes.org.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.