At Quincy Community Action Programs Inc., volunteers not only try to maximize tax refunds, they give taxpayers advice on how to use the money.
The organization’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program provides free tax-return preparation for low-income families, who organizers say are missing out on opportunities by doing their taxes themselves, or are using scarce resources by paying for someone else to prepare their returns.
Starting this year, even more residents can receive the service.
QCAP is an affiliate of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, which again is offering free tax preparation for residents in 10 communities, including Quincy, Weymouth, and Braintree. But this year, QCAP has expanded its clientele to all of Norfolk County, including such towns as Foxborough, Sharon, Dedham, and Walpole.
“In the past we would do the taxes for Quincy, Braintree, Weymouth, Milton and Randolph . . . but it turns out that a lot more people need help, and instead of sending them to another site that might be farther from them . . . I figured why not open it up to the rest of Norfolk County?’’ said Isaias Sarmiento, the financial literacy coordinator at QCAP.
There’s clearly no shortage of need.
In just the first week that the service was offered, QCAP prepared more than 60 tax returns at its Hancock Street office.
By the end of tax season, QCAP’s program - run through the United Way, with funding and numerous volunteers from Bank of America and supplemental funding from the Walmart Foundation - is expected to help close to 600 residents prepare their returns, with those coming to the Quincy office getting refunds totaling more than $1 million.
Participants must be income-eligible, generally making less than $50,000. Many of the clients are repeat clients; however, residents are coming into the program all the time, Sarmiento said.
“The IRS estimates that in our region, there is $20 million that goes unclaimed,’’ said Kory Eng, assistant vice president of community impact for United Way.
Refunds often go unclaimed because some taxpayers think they don’t earn enough to file a return, Eng said. Others are unaware of certain benefits they are eligible for, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is available only to low-income taxpayers.
“The effort is to close the gap, bring awareness, bring volunteers to these sites to do free tax prep so families don’t have to pay for that service,’’ Eng said.
“The whole idea is to boost their income . . . It’s really critical. It’s income into the hands of people who need it. It puts money into the local economy.’’
In addition, the service helps connect low-income clients with other helpful financial programs, such as credit counseling, financial literacy education, or housing and energy programs.
The financial counseling of other QCAP programs intersects with the tax service, with volunteers working with clients on how to spend their rebates - whether it’s to make six or seven more grocery trips that year, or to invest in Series I Savings Bonds, a type of US Treasury security that accrues interest with a combination of a fixed rate and a rate tied to inflation.
For clients like Melinda Kneeland, a Weymouth resident and a client of both QCAP’s tax preparation and Individual Development Accounts program, the strategy is working.
In 2011, Kneeland received $6,700 in federal and state refunds, and put the money toward the cost of buying a house. She has since purchased her first home, for herself and her daughter, and is still investing.
“I’m able to save money,’’ Kneeland said. “I’m a single mom and work in the human service field in nonprofit, so we don’t make a lot. It allowed me to save some extra money and allowed me to think about what I’m doing with my tax return.’’
One of the program’s main efforts is in education, Kneeland said, something that clients don’t typically get with an accounting service that is paid to prepare tax returns.
“It’s all about sustainability,’’ she said. “It’s not just you’re going to them and getting a one-time service; they are building in information that helps you plan for your future.
“If you go to H&R Block, they charge a lot of money but aren’t educating you on financial service that can impact you long-term . . . QCAP is trying to give you skills and tools.’’
A spokesman for H&R Block said the company has many free options for filers and fully supports programs such as the Free File Alliance, which help people file their taxes online for free.
“Our education and testing standards exceed the minimum standards the IRS is proposing,’’ said Gene King, director of media relations for H&R Block. “At this moment, volunteer sites are not required to meet these same standards.’’
What QCAP’s volunteers can do is connect volunteers who have expertise in taxation or finance with those who need the help, said Bob Gallery, Massachusetts president for Bank of America.
“They can put the skills of the people in the community’’ to good use, Gallery said. It’s why Bank of America donates $100,000 to United Way’s efforts in Massachusetts annually, he said, and why the company encourages employees to volunteer their time.
“It’s very rewarding,’’ agreed Peter Donohoe, a QCAP volunteer who lives in Quincy. “People are happy to have someone doing their tax returns for them.’’ To learn more about QCAP’s program or to schedule an appointment at the Quincy location, call 617-657-5345.