AP NEWS

BakerRipley offers free tax prep services

February 25, 2019

BakerRipley is preparing taxes this year for community members at 12 centers across the Houston area, all at no charge.

Families and individuals that are reporting up to $58,000 for 2018 are eligible for the services that are performed by certified tax preparer volunteers.

With the help of the United Way, BakerRipley is in its 11th tax season. As Houston area’s largest charitable organization, it serves nearly 600,000 neighbors at more than 60 sites through initiatives like Early Head Starts and Head Starts, a charter school and small business programs. Six community centers provide help with immigration, adult education, English as a second language, youth programs and more.

BakerRipley Community Relations Senior Manager Cristina Cave said the free tax services are important because it helps taxpayers keep more of their money while avoiding some shady tax prep places that are out there.

“When families get a tax refund, which is the largest amount of money in one installment they might receive during the year, it is the best time to pay debt, cover basic needs, build assets and save,” Cave said. “Unfortunately, it is also the time when they are more vulnerable to predatory practices like refund advance loans that have high interests and or fees or of becoming victims of unethical tax preparers that file their taxes incorrectly.”

According to Cave, neighbors who received tax help from BakerRipley last year collectively saved more than $7 million in fees. She said an average person spends $270 in fees for tax services and added that some tax preparation businesses get people in the door by advertising certain free services or estimates but fail to mention that the clients still have to shell out money to actually file their returns.

Cave mentioned three major changes in tax laws that people should be aware of this year. First, personal exemptions have gone away. In the past, a dollar amount for every person included on the return was taken from the total income to produce the taxable income. Now, that exemption no longer exists.

Second, claiming the standard deduction will probably help taxpayers, even if they have itemized in the past. “The higher of a set amount (standard deduction), or the sum of a group of allowed expenses (itemized deductions) is subtracted from total income when determining taxable income,” Cave said. “Allowed itemized deductions include mortgage interest, property taxes and charitable deductions. As part of the new tax law, the standard deduction has increased significantly and fewer expenses can be itemized.”

Also this year, the child tax credit has increased from $1,000 to $2,000, but Cave pointed out that a child must have a social security number to qualify for the credit.

Seasonal staff members manage the 12 tax centers and offer guidance to the IRS Certified Volunteer Tax Preparers, who were trained by BakerRipley. Site managers with more extensive experience quality check each tax return as well as answer questions that arise.

As an added incentive, taxpayers that get their returns done at the sites and use an account at BakerRipley’s Promise Credit Union to save anywhere from $100 to $1,000 for a full year will receive a 25 percent match at the end of the year. While the money in the account can be accessed throughout the year, Cave said the amount that stays in the whole year will draw the match, thanks to support from the United Way.

Tax returns need to be filed this year by Monday, April 15, and the 12 tax sites will be open through then. The tax prep services are offered on a first-come, first-served basis with no appointments. Cave encourages taxpayers to come early because the centers get busier as the deadline approaches. BakerRipley does have one year-round tax center at the Gulfton Sharpstown campus at 6500 Rookin St.

The quickest way to get a refund is by opting to receive it through direct deposit. After the IRS has accepted your return, Cave said that takes about seven to 10 business days but around 20 business days if you request a check instead. For status updates, you can visit https://www.irs.gov/refunds.

Cave said providing the free tax services and helping people save money that they can then use elsewhere falls in line with what BakerRipley is all about.

“Working with our neighbors side by side is how we fulfill our mission of bringing resources, education and connection,” she said.

tracy.maness@hcnonline.com