“There is a rational or irrational sort of fear of the tax system. So many people feel they need assistance with their taxes, but yet it can be fairly expensive. So [VITA is] a way to offer competent advice.”
David Oeth worked as a CPA for 40 years, then joined VITA, or Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, two months after retiring. “I got more and more involved ... and gradually got more involved with training and coordinating the service along with other volunteers. ... It was a way to apply what I liked to do when I was working, to stay involved in retirement.” He is one of more than 80 volunteers that make this service possible.
VITA's no-cost tax services are a result of multiple partners coming together to fill a gap in our community: a lack of accessible and affordable tax filing services. The VITA program is locally sponsored by the Salvation Army and 125 LIVE, along with several site locations that allow the program to offer tax preparation appointments. United Way of Olmsted County has partnered with VITA in Southeast Minnesota for as long as Dave can remember and is a vital partner in its longevity and impact.
Just as VITA relies on around 85 volunteers to accomplish its work, it also relies on its partnerships with UWOC, Salvation Army, 125 LIVE, and others. UWOC, for instance, coordinates scheduling for roughly 80% of all tax preparation appointments.
Fast facts about VITA:
To schedule an appointment, call United Way’s 211 resource line by simply dialing 2-1-1
Volunteer tax preparers go through 60-80 hours of training and receive certification from the IRS
Program sponsors are Salvation Army and 125 LIVE
VITA served around 3,000 taxpayers in Southeast Minnesota last year at sites around the region
“We switched four or five years ago to using [United Way’s] 211 network,” Dave said. VITA also uses United Way’s Get Connected volunteer portal for recruitment, “and we've always worked with a number of people at United Way, just as a sounding board on issues, how to reach some underserved communities, things like that. So, it’s been a great relationship. VITA would not be possible without the support of our program sponsors and partners, along with our 80+ volunteers.”
While VITA volunteers aren’t all trained tax professionals – in fact, Dave is in the minority there – they do all go through rigorous training. “We're asking a lot,” Dave said: 60 to 80 hours. “And then ... you have to pass these IRS tests, too.”
“Every return also gets reviewed by [a second, experienced volunteer]. We have quality baked in.”
All of this means that clients who make appointments can rest assured that their preparer knows what they’re doing. "They could show you their certification ... that shows that they've passed these tests and that they're an authorized VITA volunteer,” Dave says. Plus, “every return also gets reviewed by [a second, experienced volunteer]. We have quality baked in.”
Thanks to recent changes to Minnesota tax law, including new and expanded refunds – “people who don't even need to file a return should file for this renters’ refund,” according to Dave – VITA received additional grant funding from the State of Minnesota this year. They’re working with UWOC, Salvation Army, and 125 LIVE to use these new funds to collaborate with other local organizations including Pamoja Women, Intermix, and Damascus Way. These organizations will help VITA “try to reach some communities that we might otherwise be underserving,” Dave shared.
When it comes to the actual tax preparation appointments VITA runs, times are flexible. The first sessions start on February 1, and from that point, there are appointments available six days per week, including two night sessions. “Generally, people are going to find something that will work with their schedule,” Dave said.
“Most of the people that we serve, you know, this is a significant source of their savings for the year, what they get back in a refund,” Dave shared. “It's pretty impactful, and I'm proud of the work our volunteers do.”
“[For] most of the people that we serve, this is a significant source of their savings for the year, what they get back in a refund.”
Still, they generally sell out, meaning all the available appointments get filled. “So, I think there is some unmet demand. ... But we can only do what we can do,” Dave said. “More volunteers would allow us to expand services.”
VITA appointments are available at multiple locations across the region, including Salvation Army, 125 LIVE, Bethel Lutheran Church, the Stewartville Center for Active Adults, the Mantorville Senior Center, and a location in Lanesboro. They also go to 17 housing sites that concentrate on housing for elderly and disabled individuals. “All of our sites are so critical ... without these sites willing to give us space, we couldn't do it. We need volunteers, we also need a location. We really can't do it without their support.”
“It's truly – and I'm not saying it just because I'm involved – but it it's an amazing organization and impact,” Dave said. “It really is.”
About United Way of Olmsted County
United Way of Olmsted County (UWOC) is a community change organization with the mission to unite people and resources to improve lives in our community. We fight for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in our community in a variety of ways: we collaborate with local organizations, businesses, and community leaders to mobilize their expertise and resources; we accelerate impact by strengthening systems and cultivating leaders to build a community where all people can thrive, regardless of race or place; and we participate in a collective effort that empowers local residents to create lasting transformations in their own communities through our focus on community-driven change.
United Way of Olmsted County