Even though the year is over (and 2021 isn’t off to a great start) there’s one more piece of 2020 that’s lingering on many to-do lists: filing income tax returns. However, there is some relief for Texans after the winter storms as the Internal Revenue Service announced Tuesday a statewide deadline extension and other tax relief.

The recent disaster declaration along with the economic and personal impacts of the coronavirus pandemic last year mean that many taxpayers will have even more complicated taxes to file this and next year. With VITA San Antonio, people earning $55,000 or less can get their taxes done free of charge. VITA stands for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.

Robin Hernandez, 26, worked in event coordination before COVID-19 shut that industry down. He is unmarried and doesn’t own a home or business, so his taxes have always been simple.

“This year quite a lot of factors came into play with COVID,” Hernandez said. He lost his job in August, began receiving unemployment checks, and found medical insurance and care.

He wasn’t sure how to navigate the tax system this year and his mother, who used VITA when he was a kid, told Hernandez to look into the free program.

Because it was free, “I was a little skeptical,” he said. But it was easy, safe, and “they give you everything you need.”

When his mother went to have her taxes done at VITA, she got to sit down with a volunteer tax preparer to go over her paperwork just like someone would at a private tax preparation company. For Hernandez, that process has changed because of the pandemic.

He called ahead to find out more about the program and what information he needed to gather. Due to staff limitations, clients need to print out the right forms and make copies of their documents, but can also opt to use email.

When clients arrive at one of nine sites at various community centers and colleges, VITA staff greets them outside to make sure they fill out an intake form and proper paperwork.

“I just put everything in an envelope … and just handed it off,” said Hernandez, who filed his completed return last week. Filing season began on Feb. 12. Typically, taxes are dure on April 15, but the IRS extended the deadline for businesses and individuals affected by last week’s storms to June 15.

“This is a very helpful resource for [low-income] communities,” Hernandez said of VITA. “I think a lot of people … don’t necessarily have the resources available to learn how to do tax preparation on their own.”

That’s exactly why VITA, an IRS-sponsored program, was started more than 50 years ago. The San Antonio program started more than 10 years ago and is operated by a collaborative coalition including United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, Catholic Charities, the City of San Antonio, and roughly 30 other organizations.

The pandemic has impeded VITA’s ability to reach the low-income communities it serves, said Jason Alemán, a director with United Way. “But there was never a moment of thought that we would not do it.”

For tax year 2018, the VITA coalition volunteers prepared over 32,000 tax returns at 23 sites. Last year, with three sites open, volunteers were still able to prepare more than 23,000 tax returns. Nearly 7,000 taxpayers received earned income tax credits valued at more than $15.8 million.

The program is able to continue to operate because of the support of its partners, Alemán said. “It is such a collaboration that there’s there’s no real ownership over it. … It’s just sort of handshakes.”

VITA offers additional services after tax season from at its offices inside the Guadalupe Community Center, St. Philips College, and the Willie C. Velasquez Learning Center.

Each volunteer is trained and certified, he said. They undergo a minimum of 20 hours of training and must pass an exam through the IRS before they can prepare or submit a tax return.

“For more complex [tax] situations, the tax preparer will definitely reach out to the taxpayer and go through the process with them,” he said, and the best way to get connected to VITA is to call the United Way Helpline at 2-1-1.

Through a multi-year partnership with River City Federal Credit Union, people who use VITA may qualify for a refund anticipation loan based on how much they expect to get back from the federal government, Alemán added.

Unlike predatory payday loans that carry huge interest rates, these loans are interest-free and come with no charge for people who have taken advantage of VITA.

“It is helping folks that are in immediate need,” he said. “There’s no fine print.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org