With spring in Tucson comes warm(er) air, saguaro blooms and, of course, taxes. Every April, like clockwork, Uncle Sam sends the Internal Revenue Service to collect citizens’ due contributions to our society. To many Americans, however, it seems that all Uncle Sam sends is anxiety and confusion. For this reason, United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona (UWTSA) is one of the thousands of organizations across the country that facilitate the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
This tax season, UWTSA pledged to prepare income taxes for any Tucsonan household that brought in less that $64,000 of combined income absolutely free of charge. United Way was able to stay true to this charge by training and mobilizing over 100 volunteers and setting up shop at 22 community locations.
As I learned early in my service, two of the biggest barriers to people receiving services they need are transportation and availability. For this reason, I threw my focus behind improving our “Valet” VITA service. In our Valet model, clients can come into a site, sit through a 20 minute intake interview, and then have their documents scanned into United Way’s secure cloud-based system. From there, volunteers can remotely prepare the returns without the taxpayer needing to be present.
Contrast this with our traditional model that can take up to 3 hours, in which clients sit through the interview, preparation and quality review before leaving with their return, and we see that clients save more time to spend taking care of work and family. Further, while our traditional model requires static, immovable locations, our Valet model, in which all required materials fit in a briefcase, allows us to set up “pop up shops” all over Tucson. This effectively mitigates clients’ transportation barriers.
When I arrived at United Way, Valet VITA was a well-oiled machine, but there was still room for programmatic improvements. Chiefly, my supervisor had highlighted the current document management system for Valet returns as clunky and inefficient.
During the tax off-season, I researched dozens of document management platforms with the hope of streamlining our tax preparation workflow. With collaboration from the IT department, we settled on Zendesk: a ticket-based helpdesk with customization features. We built out multiple iterations of our workflow, attempting to maximize automation and simplicity to make the tax preparers’ jobs easier. My final product involved a complex line of triggers and automations across multiple platforms. The extra work on the back end paid off, however. Our tax preparers found the new Zendesk platform to be more efficient, intuitive, and organized.
By the end of the season, 413 tax returns were filed with the IRS through the new Zendesk system, a 55% increase over last year’s system. Those 413 Valet returns brought back $559,341 in refunds to working class families in Tucson. We can take the tax time savings of these 413 clients even further by considering their alternative options of a paid preparer. With an average cost in the neighborhood of $250 per return, the free service offered by United Way saved clients an additional $82,600. When we combine the total refunds with the taxpayer’s ability to take advantage of free service delivery, we see that the Valet VITA program created close to $642,000 in value for the Tucson community.
Each year, important tax credits accessed by filing are highlighted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities as the single most powerful tool to help families escape poverty. I’m proud that, as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I had the unique opportunity to contribute to such a wide spanning and effective initiative.
By Spencer Buys, AmeriCorps VISTA at the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona