Chris Sharp, a first-year volunteer with the Virginia Income Tax Assistance program, is assisting a family with a standard 1040 form.
Photo by Shirley Ruhe.
A bell rings at the Department of Human and Community Services building on Mount Vernon Avenue on April 7, as another taxpayer enters the door for free assistance. Miguel Contreras steps forward to act as the screener. His job is to be sure all of the clients have the appropriate documents such as valid social security card, picture ID and proof of income. The client must fall within the income limits of $55,000 for families and $35,000 for individuals.
Then Contreras decides if they can do it. He adds that the volunteers are prohibited by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from assisting with certain forms such as clients with rental property, with investment income over $1,000 or a nanny who isn't a resident. "Earlier today I had to turn away a client who forgot his Social Security card."
They have 13-14 booths available for free tax assistance but the number of clients they can serve on any one day depends on the volunteers who show up. Today they have 10 volunteers including four students from Georgetown who come every Saturday. The volunteers spend about 20 minutes with a client on a routine form. After the tax form has been completed, it is reviewed by a quality control team.
A volunteer booth opens up. "What's her number?" It's number 13. "Send her back to a booth. She has to leave early to go to work." It is 10 a.m. and already they have 27 clients who have come in for assistance with their tax forms. Contreras says they were lined up outside the door at 9 a.m. before they opened.
Although the session is scheduled to end at noon and the bell continues to ring, Contreras is forced to cut off the new clients. "We won't be able to do more than this in the next couple of hours." The assistance is also available Wednesday nights from 6:30-8 p.m. "But I've been there until 10 p.m. pretty much the whole season since we began February 3. And we run right up to April 14."
Contreras says it is busier the closer you get to the deadline for filing taxes. But it is also busy in the beginning from people who want to get their refund. Then there is a midseason low. "Then it's like 'oh, I've got to do my taxes.' Some procrastinate until the last day because they have issues like they didn't file for the last two years."
Another booth opens up. "Assign him an advanced counselor. He is self employed. It's more complicated."
Contreras, who is from Del Ray, has been a volunteer in the IRS Volunteer Income Assistance Program (VITA) for 20 years. He says all of the volunteers must take an online course offered by the IRS and be certified to participate. "They have different levels like intermediate and advanced and I assign the appropriate level of volunteer to the clients depending on the complexity of their return." He says he started in Arlington when they needed a translator for the clients. Then he moved to assisting with returns and finally the screener. "It's the best use of my skills."