Unless the Social Development Commission can raise $40,000 by Dec. 31, there will be major cuts to its popular Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, according to Patrice Harris, director of community relations and marketing for the organization.
Last year, SDC’s team of volunteer tax preparers served 13,800 people in Milwaukee. Since the program began at SDC in 2001 it has served more than 162,000 low- to middle-income households in Milwaukee, according to Harris.
“More than $174 million has been returned to the Milwaukee economy through the program,” Harris said.
Unless the hole is filled, SDC would likely reduce the program from five sites to three in 2016, said Harris. Residents have been known to brave the cold and form lines outside SDC sites as early as 7 a.m. to receive free tax preparation services.
According to LaToya Jones, VITA program manager at SDC, individuals who don’t have access to free tax services will likely have to pay tax preparers.
“They’re going to charge them a few hundred dollars and that money is really going to reduce what they could be bringing back home to their families,” Jones said.
Nathan Tritt, technology team lead at Northwestern Mutual, has been a volunteer VITA tax preparer for 11 years and is the site coordinator for the program’s Sixteenth Street Community Health Center location at 1032 S. Cesar E. Chavez Drive.
Tritt agreed that a reduction in free tax services could push people to utilize expensive services, but it also might result in residents filling out their own tax returns. “They might miss out on valuable tax credits without even knowing it or make mistakes that could lead to them getting audited,” he said.
Tritt said residents in the community surrounding the health center have a great need for the service.
“Helping people in this community do things that they’re not able to do themselves is really important,” Tritt said. If they’re not able to access the VITA program through the clinic or a different site, residents could be hurt, he added.
It’s not yet known whether the Sixteenth Street VITA site would be eliminated if the program is downsized.
The Internal Revenue Service matches funds raised by SDC for the VITA program. Because SDC lost a $40,000 grant this year, total funding for the $300,000 program would drop by $80,000.
Earlier this year, SDC lost its county contract to provide energy assistance services. The organization is in the process of moving its headquarters to the Lindsay Heights neighborhood.
SDC is reaching out to the community in hopes of raising the money before the Dec. 29 deadline. “We’re hoping for individual donations of $5, $10 or even $100 or more from a business that wants to support services for low-income families,” Jones said.