5 Questions with Herman Barahona

It’s odd to think that someone might leave free money on the table. And yet common tax deductions often go unclaimed each year by Placer County residents. As a service to our residents, this year, Placer County employees joined community volunteers to help make sure they get the tax refunds to which they’re entitled.

This year, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program volunteers in Placer County filed over 370 tax returns for over $500,000 in federal and state tax refunds, doubling the program’s refund total from last year. Here to give us some insight into this helpful program is Herman Barahona, a Placer County client service program specialist.

How long have you been involved with Placer County’s free tax-prep assistance program? Tell us more about your role.

It began with a meeting with my supervisor, Mary Barker, in August of last year. Mary and Greg Geisler started the VITA program last year with four volunteers, and they were interested in continuing this effort in 2017. With the help of the incredible team at Employment Services (Jamie Sweeney, Nidia Russi, Luz Flores, Amber Hirsh, Marissa Yarmolyuk, Krista Shalley, Katie Kenoyer and Helene Nakamura), they helped set up the VITA sites in Rocklin and Auburn. Soon after that, I got involved with the VITA coalition that is led by the United Way California Capital Region and the Regional IRS VITA leadership team. Once there, I learned that they have been successfully doing the free-tax preparation program for over a decade in the Sacramento region. The VITA coalition is made up of several groups: IRS, Franchise Tax Board, Goodwill Industries, AmeriCorps, Sacramento County and City of Sacramento, local high schools and local business and nonprofit organizations. It was exciting to see all the different partners. It was only natural to continue expanding the VITA coalition in Placer County.

How does the tax-prep assistance program impact the community?

The VITA program helps file income taxes for households who earn less than $54,000, free of charge.

As far as this tax season, 26 community volunteers and staff have helped process over $500,000 in federal and state refunds for over 370 families in the community!

These refunds are not only useful for families, but it’s a great benefit for the local economy.

More importantly, the VITA program offers a space for talented members of the community to help low income families and acquire useful knowledge and resources about Placer County services and its civic traditions.

What is a common misconception people have about filing taxes?

Misconceptions vary from client to client, but I found a common theme among tax filers. First, most people pay their share of income taxes through their withholdings .  Some believe that itemizing expenses may help their potential income tax liability, but due to the income bracket the VITA program accepts, the federal standard deduction is higher than itemized deductions. Include other credits such as the Earned Income Tax credit, and the client usually has enough to cover liabilities and is entitled to an income tax refund. The IRS tax software is already programmed to handle all these calculations. The IRS lets us know if the tax files we submit are rejected or accepted. We, as preparers, are in essence doing the data entry and basic quality review, but ultimately the IRS will help the client troubleshoot any discrepancies.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program relies largely on volunteers. Do you need to be a tax expert to get involved?

No, all a volunteer needs is the willingness to help and have an appetite for learning. The IRS certified training schedule is flexible and the classes happen all over the region, including online courses.

At the completion of their training, all volunteers are required to pass a basic certification test, which includes a rigorous ethics portion, use of the tax software and basic tax law. We got lucky this year because we had volunteers who also passed the advanced certification training.  Additionally, we hosted two Super-Saturday events where we had volunteer professionals from the IRS, the California Franchise Tax Board and the AmeriCorps program.

What does the tax-prep assistance program mean to you?

I remember one of our clients, who stated she and her child live in a local motel. She had a part-time job last year and had never filed taxes. The reaction on her face was priceless once we informed her that she was entitled to a federal and state refund. It is always a privilege to hear from those we serve. It paints a picture of their personal life and community.

According to www.CALEITC4me.org, they estimate that Placer County has over 16,257 households who may be eligible to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. As many as 4,000 of those may be eligible for the additional California EITC. There is more work ahead, and I look forward to recruiting volunteers for this program next year.