United Way, CA$H Coalition see increased success for tax preparation program

5 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Now in its 7th year, the Aroostook CA$H Coalition’s Free Tax Assistance Program remains a vital program for much of Aroostook County’s population, according to program organizers and participants. 

The Aroostook CA$H Coalition, in partnership with United Way of Aroostook and The County Federal Credit Union, provides free tax preparation every year to individuals and families whose annual household income is less than $54,000. Over time the program has grown to now include 50 volunteers who receive specialized training as IRS-certified tax preparers and meet with clients one-on-one at locations in Presque Isle, Houlton and Fort Kent.

Last year, the program served over 800 households and helped people collect nearly $800,000 total in refunds. United Way executive director Sherry Locke said that as of March 20, Aroostook CA$H Coalition is on track to serve at least 1,000 households by the end of this year’s tax season and provide them thousands more in refunds.

“We’ve seen a 20 percent increase in clients from last year,” Locke said. “With no IRS office in Aroostook County and increased awareness of the program, I think more people are now realizing how vital these services are to the community.”

Locke points to the county’s aging population as one factor for that increase. The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau finds that Maine is still the oldest state in the nation, with a median age of 44.6. From 2016 to 2017, the estimated number of people in Maine over the age of 65 grew by 55,000 to 266,214 compared to 252,634 people under the age of 18. The median level of income for households in Aroostook County is $38,087 compared to the national median income of $55,322.

In addition to free tax preparation, individuals who come in to any Aroostook CA$H coalition site are able to meet with Opportunity Guides, employees of The County Federal Credit Union, to gain advice regarding financial wellness and information on related community services. They also are able to speak with a representative from New Ventures Maine to receive a free, unofficial estimate of their credit score.

“We truly have the kindest volunteers who do everything from handling phone calls and greeting people when they come in to providing the free tax preps and financial advice,” Locke said. “Our clients have been so thankful that the community is providing them with these services.”

Roberta Keirstead of Presque Isle visited the CA$H Coalition’s tax prep site at the Aroostook Centre Mall on March 20 for the first time and noted how appreciative she was for the opportunity to speak with a qualified tax preparer.

“I’ve never known how to read all these forms by myself,” Keistead said. “When you’re on a fixed income every type of savings helps.”

In future years, Locke said that Aroostook CA$H Coalition would like to have a greater number of volunteers who are situated in each community throughout the tax season to reduce time and costs associated with travel to Houlton and Fort Kent.

She said the work is rewarding and recalled one special day in late February when she and volunteers gave out to clients warm blankets, donated by the Houlton-based nonprofit Aid for Kids.

Though that day was one when many businesses were closed due to strong wind gusts and blowing snow, volunteers still served 35 clients who braved the bad weather to come to the Presque Isle tax prep sites.

“We’d been trying to decide how to distribute the blankets and thought we’d show appreciation for our clients who came out despite the weather,” Locke said. “There were many people who said, ‘No one has ever given me anything like this before.’”

To find locations for assistance or to learn more about the Aroostook CA$H Coalition and free tax preparation program, visit online www.cashmaine.org/coalition/aroostook-county/ or call United Way at (207) 764-5197.