Powered by hundreds of highly trained volunteers, the Kent County Tax Credit Coalition helps working individuals and families in the region receive important refunds during tax season.
Every year millions of dollars in tax refunds and credits go unclaimed by people who are eligible for them, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
That’s why, since 2002, the Kent County Tax Credit Coalition (KCTCC) has helped more than 93,500 low- to middle-income taxpayers in Kent County claim nearly $100 million in tax refunds and credits through its free tax preparation and filing service, according to Brenda Brame, KCTCC program manager.
“Right now, when more people are going to two or three jobs just to make it work, it’s important they get all of the tax refunds and credits they deserve,” Brame told MiBiz. “It makes such a difference in our community.”
Qualifying individuals and families with a household income of $56,000 or less can get their taxes prepared and filed for free through the program. Most KCTCC clients spend tax refunds locally on necessities like food and clothing, home and car repairs, or medical treatment, which stimulates the local economy, Brame said.
Brame’s motivation to help people through KCTCC comes from her own lived experience of paying hundreds of dollars to commercial tax preparers, often for inaccurate returns.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brame was a single mother working as a paraprofessional in the Grand Rapids Public Schools during the day and evening shifts at Hudson’s, or The J.L. Hudson Company, a retail department store chain that was based in Detroit.
Finding the time to responsibly prepare and file her income taxes on top of the challenges of her daily routine was always a burden, Brame said. The hurdle compelled her to use the commercial tax preparers that often pop up in empty storefronts around low-income neighborhoods.
“One year, I got burnt,” she said.
Somehow, Brame — who was expecting a refund — left the office still owing the tax preparer $500.
“I’ll never forget the day,” she said. “I walked out holding my two kids and I can tell you exactly where I was. The name is changed now, but it is vivid in my mind. I walked out, I was crying and my daughters wanted to know why I was crying.”
The worry “must’ve still been on my face” the next day, Brame said, because a coworker at the school asked her what was wrong and offered to take a second look at her return.
“This is how I know what happens at the paid tax places,” she said. “(The coworker) got me the Earned Income Tax Credit and instead of owing $500, I was able to buy a car.”
Accessing the EITC
The Earned Income Tax Credit or EITC, which was enacted by Congress in 1975, reduces the amount of taxes owed by low- to moderate-income working individuals and couples, particularly those with children. Michigan is also one of 25 states that offers residents an additional state EITC credit.
The refund is determined by the taxpayer’s income and number of children; however, some individuals without children are also eligible. The average amount of EITC received per claim nationwide was about $2,476 in 2019, according to the IRS. However, the agency estimates that more than 20 percent of people who qualify for the credit do not claim it.
More than $11 million in federal EITC dollars go unclaimed in Kent County every year.
KCTCC, which is based at Heart of West Michigan United Way in Grand Rapids, uses 14 community sites throughout Kent County and hundreds of volunteers to ensure more people in the region are accessing the EITC and other credits that they’ve earned.
“It’s great when you can tell someone that they’re going to get a refund, especially if they didn’t know they were going to get one,” said Nancy Mroczkowski, a KCTCC volunteer. “That’s the nice thing, when we can help somebody make it through another year.”
The program mobilizes about 200 volunteers each year who are trained to be IRS-certified tax preparers for free by KCTCC.
“It’s a skill learned,” said Brame, who added that many of the volunteers use the training and certification to advance their own careers. “Once I give you a skill, I cannot take it back.”
Many of the volunteers who power the program are financial or legal professionals or retirees with finance backgrounds. Some of West Michigan’s largest companies, including Wolverine World Wide Inc., GE Aviation Systems LLC and Steelcase Inc., also partner with the group.
In February, the finance department at Steelcase hosted its 9th annual “community tax day” with KCTCC, during which around 30 volunteers from the company prepared and filed 113 tax returns. The tax refunds and credits generated from that single event totaled $233,000.
“Those dollars are all brought back to our community, and every time you spend a dollar in our community, that means that someone else has a job,” Brame said.
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