CSET rolls out tax aid for Tulare County residents

(Rigo Moran)

Tulare County residents who earn less than $60,000 annually receive free assistance with filing their federal income tax return through Community Services Employment Training

TULARE COUNTY – With the tax filing deadline just two months away, qualifying Tulare County residents can receive free tax preparation assistance from nonprofit Community Services Employment Training (CSET) thanks to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

In-person and drop-off tax preparation services for English and Spanish speakers are accessible at specific times and locations through April 12. Available to those with low to moderate incomes, VITA is an IRS grant program that provides funding to community organizations so they can in turn help residents properly file their taxes.

“The IRS in the last 25 years has been working really hard with partners across our nation to ensure that people with few resources are able to file a quality tax return at no charge, so they’re able to do it and they can keep all of those tax credit dollars in their pocket so they can use them for themselves,” Raquel Gomez Collins, CSET community initiatives division director, said.

CSET has participated in the program for about 20 years, first partnering with United Way of Fresno County before applying to the grant program individually.

“In our community, it was started by a couple of volunteers; they were IRS employees who knew about VITA and wanted to help their neighbors,” Gomez Collins said.

Individuals and families who earn less than $60,000 annually are eligible to receive the tax preparation services. Gomez Collins said that while CSET focuses on helping people who are Tulare County residents, they do connect residents from neighboring counties with free tax prep services in their area.

Gomez Collins stressed that this is a completely free, volunteer-based program. The grant CSET receives from the IRS helps them operate the program out of their offices with support from their employees, but the rest is driven by community volunteers.

In 2023, Gomez Collins said CSET trained about 200 volunteers, and had 78 complete the tax season with the program. CSET helped prepare 3,898 tax returns in 2023, and their goal for this year is to help with 4,000.

CSET also provides assistance with applying for the California Earned Income Tax Credit.

What to expect and prepare

Gomez Collins said that it is vital for people to come prepared with all of the documents needed to complete their tax returns.

Anyone who is accessing in-person services must bring a photo ID and their social security card, along with the social security card of anyone else they are including on their tax return, such as their dependents or spouse.

Also needed is all income documents for 2023, including all W-2s and 1099 forms. Gomez Collins said that if someone is missing even just one income document, CSET cannot complete the tax return. For example, if someone had three different jobs in 2023, they must bring all three W-2s they should have received.

CSET’s website has a full checklist of other information that is needed for tax return completion, including daycare expenses, higher education expenses and documents to support itemized deductions.

For those using in-person services, Gomez Collins said volunteers will greet individuals who are lined up at their office before they even open to answer any general questions and ensure people have all of the documents they need.

If someone is using the drop-off services, Gomez Collins said CSET will provide them with a folder that contains an intake form, instructions and information about other resources. The person must then return the folder with the form completely filled out and with copies of all the required documents.

A completed, correct form along with copies of the required documents must be provided to VITA volunteers so that they can efficiently and correctly complete a person’s tax return.

Any amendments to tax returns, mistakes that need corrected or missing information can take away from the number of people the volunteers are able to help, Gomez Collins said. Further, CSET asks that people not approach them if they are “shopping around” for tax preparation services to see what their refund might be so volunteers can focus on individuals who need assistance.

Tax prep services are offered in both English and Spanish, and Gomez Collins said their in-person services also typically include volunteers who can read forms out loud to people to help them fill out the intake form and understand what it is asking.

CSET can also help with California state tax returns concurrently with federal returns; however, CSET is not able to help with out-of-state tax returns, incomes of more than $60,000 annually and other, more unique situations. A full list is available on the intake form.

Where to access services

There are a total of six sites where residents can access either in-person or drop-off services. Four of the sites have services offered every other Saturday, on Feb. 24, March 9, March 23 and April 6.

In Visalia, the Employment Connection office, located at 4025 W. Noble Ave., Suite B, is open for in-person and drop-off services Tuesdays through Fridays.

Also in Visalia, the CSET main office, located at 312 NW 3rd Ave., is open for in-person services every other Saturday.

In Tulare, the Family Resource Center, located at 302 E. Tulare Ave., is open for drop-off services on Tuesdays and Thursdays and for in-person services every other Saturday.

In Porterville, the Employment Connection office, located at 1063 W. Henderson Ave., is open for drop-off services Tuesdays through Fridays and in-person services every other Saturday.

In Cutler, the CSET Cutler-Orosi Senior Center, located at 12691 Ave. 408, is open for drop-off services Tuesdays through Thursdays and in-person services every other Saturday.

In Earlimart, the Family Resource Center, located at 176 N. Front St., is open for drop-off services on Wednesdays and Fridays.

How to volunteer

CSET is always looking for volunteers for the VITA program, and volunteers can get involved at any point, Gomez Collins said. Individuals with any experience level are welcome to volunteer, whether they are tax professionals or not.

To get involved, those interested should email CSET or register online, and a CSET employee will provide them with the training modules they need to go through to learn how to prepare tax returns and get a certificate.

Gomez Collins said that about half of the training is about ethics related to tax preparation and the other part is about understanding the terms and language of a tax return. Once a prospective volunteer receives the certificate, CSET will vet them and then set them up to volunteer.

Volunteering can be a good way for anyone, especially young people, to take advantage of the training provided and build up the knowledge base of how to prepare tax returns in the community, Gomez Collins said, because “everyone has to do a tax return forever.”

“It’s such a wonderful way to learn about your community but also give back and make new friends,” Gomez Collins said. “It’s a great place to meet people.”

Start typing and press Enter to search