October 8, 2015
While many citizens dread filing their taxes, E4C helps people benefit from completing their forms
1. INTRODUCTION The mail begins to arrive mid-January and by March you’ve amassed a large pile of official looking letters. Some are instructions from the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA), others are self-explanatory donation receipts, and the rest are forms with cryptic codes from employers, banks and benefit providers. Looking at the pile of paperwork, you should feel proud you’ve organized it all in one place. Instead, you feel dread: you worry that you’ve missed a form, forgot to keep a receipt, and above all, that you’ll make an error.
It’s tax time, a time when most people feel daunted by the process of filing their income statements. For those who live close to or below the poverty line, the prospect of doing taxes can be even more worrisome. They have limited access to computers and e-filing software, and the costs associated with professional tax preparation are prohibitive.
2. CASE STUDY
For years, Susan brought her taxes to a large tax preparation company: there was an initial charge, then additional charges for every T4 or receipt. “Last year I got $9 back – imagine if I had to pay $80 to get $9 back?” says Susan.
She now gets her taxes done – for free – by the friendly volunteer tax filers of Make Tax Time Pay (MTTP). MTTP is a part of the Edmonton-based non-profit organization E4C, which helps Edmontonians in the areas of food security, housing, education and community. Partnering with the CRA, MTTP strives to make tax filing as easy as possible for low-income Edmontonians. As a funding partner, Edmonton Community Foundation provided $40,000 over the past three years to support the program’s $90,000 annual operating budget.
Last year, the program’s stats were astounding: two staff coordinated 320 volunteers at more than 26 tax sites in 30 languages. In 2013, the program completed over 4,000 returns and generated an incredible $1.5 million collective refund (this refund doesn’t include any of the additional benefits gained by clients now able to access GST rebates and Child Tax Benefits).
E4C works to make the program as accessible as possible. By simply calling 211, operators determine a caller’s income eligibility and site preference. The client is then directed to contact a volunteer site coordinator, who sets up an appointment and goes over the list of necessary documents the client must bring in.
“People are often worried that they are missing documentation, but our volunteers can call CRA and access any information on all current and past T4s issued to an individual. Because we partner with CRA, we can also access past tax information,” says Teena Gill, coordinator of MTTP.
Sites are strategically chosen community hubs where people feel comfortable: libraries, places of worship, cultural centres and colleges.
Jon Franzen has been going to the Sprucewood Library site for eight years, after an injury forced him into early retirement, “For my wife and I, it’s become an annual social outing. We catch up with the same volunteers every year.” Coffee, juice and snacks are at many of the sites and act to further put people at ease.
At first, Susan Cameron was nervous about going to a public, community space with her financial information, “I worried that I would know someone, but after the first time I never worried. The volunteers are so friendly and they have no judgment.”
Besides tax preparation, MTTP also educates clients about their eligibility for benefits. Volunteers review each client’s available benefits and support clients who need help completing the forms.
While clients are often worried they will have to pay taxes, filing their taxes almost always leads to refunds. Gill remembers one couple with a child who hadn’t filed their taxes in six years. Their final refund? $10,000. Thanks to MTTP, this couple – and 4,000 other individuals in Edmonton – no longer need to feel daunted by tax time.