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Amid rising tax preparation fees, programs provide low-income Minnesotans with free filing assistance

Eligible Minnesotans scramble for free filing assistance
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Mary Zweber, of Stillwater, is one of 500 volunteer tax preparers at the St. Paul headquartered Prepare and Prosper nonprofit.

On a recent afternoon, Mary Zweber and other volunteer tax preparers formed a circle in a small room inside the St. Paul headquarters of Prepare + Prosper, a nonprofit that helps provide free tax preparation services for low-income Minnesotans.

Matt Dorwart, a manager with the organization, told the volunteers how many people the organization has helped file their taxes since January: More than 10,000.

That was thanks in part to people like Zweber and 500 other certified tax preparers who help out at Prepare + Prosper, the state’s largest organization of its kind, operating eight different tax-prep clinics around the Twin Cities.  

Zweber, a retired pharmacist from Stillwater, has been part of the program for the past five years, working eight hours each week. On that afternoon, Zweber showed up at the center for her last shift of the year. “I’m here dealing with people with many, many challenges,” said Zweber of the customers as she waited for her first client of the day. “I find that I can make a difference.”

Free tax prep service

To receive assistance from Prepare + Prosper, filers must meet certain eligibilities: Individual filers must make an annual income of $35,000 or less; families and self-employment people are required to earn $55,000 a year or less. 

Prepare + Prosper is just one of several programs providing tax-prep services to low- and moderate-income communities throughout the state, thanks to the federal Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. The Minnesota Department of Revenue also provides tax-filing assistance at 230 sites across the state, said Sarah Bjorklund, a lead outreach program with the department. The department has five sites in St. Paul that offer the service to eligible people during the tax season — and funds nonprofit organizations that also provide the services.

“There are people that can’t afford to go to H&R Block and spend $180 to have a simple return done,” Bjorklund said. “So, being able to go get one done for free at these sites is just instant savings in their pocket.”

Saving money for clients, said Prepare + Prosper volunteer Andrew Benjamin, is the main reason that has kept him coming back to the clinic for the past 36 years.  “I like to see them get the biggest refund they can get legally through their earned income credit and all other credits that the government would allow them.”

Complicated tax prep   

Dorwart brought Zweber an elderly woman carrying all her documents in a bag. “Have you been here before?” Zweber asked the woman.

The woman had never been to the center. She was there to avoid a mistake she made last year, when she missed the deadline after an unsuccessful attempt to do her own taxes.

It’s a common refrain. So too is the problem of low-income filers losing a big chunk of their refunds to the tax-prep industry. Indeed, the average service fee Americans spend on getting their taxes done is around $275. In some cases, though, that amount ranges between $309 and $509 — depending on the state and the complexity of a customer’s taxes.

Hundreds of clients at Prepare and Prosper have left notes
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Hundreds of clients at Prepare and Prosper have left notes about what they would do with the their tax refunds.

Tracy Fischman, executive director of Prepare + Prosper, said her organization wants to save that money for its customers. That’s why volunteers not only assist customers filing their taxes, they offer financial counseling to encourage them to save for unexpected emergencies and future goals.

At the tax clinic on that afternoon, Zweber stared at the elderly woman’s tax documents before asking her several questions. The customer then looked around the crowded tax clinic, while Zweber carefully studied her documents.

“Thank you for doing this,” the women uttered.

“Oh!” Zweber exclaimed, smiling. “After 12 weeks, I’m kind of good at it.” 

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