As the 2016 tax filing season officially started last week, the Texoma Council of Governments is partnering with the IRS to help local residents prepare and file tax returns without any fees attached.

The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program will be operated for a third year locally by TCOG, and it provides free tax preparation to seniors (60 years and older), veterans, people with disabilities, limited English speaking taxpayers and for individuals who earn $53,000 or less a year. The program pairs residents with volunteers who help them file tax returns electronically, but TCOG Program Planner Nicole George said it also does more.

“It really focuses on our low-income workers that get earned income credit because we also do a financial literacy program with it to kind of teach them how to save some of their refund for a rainy day, so to speak,” George said.

The program is geared toward helping people get more from their refund, both by removing fees from typical tax filing services and helping people find the applicable tax credits, George said. The program also has an education component that focuses on tips for saving money and building assets.

“Our unemployment rates are pretty good out here, so everybody that wants to work pretty much is, but they’re not necessarily making a living wage,” George said. “So we can kind help them manage their finances through this program — saving them money on the tax return itself. Keeping them from maybe getting an advance that has a high interest rate and then teaching them some saving tips.”

While George is the site coordinator of the program for TCOG, volunteers staff it. Olivia Carrillo, an IRS stakeholder relationship tax consultant, said the volunteers are certified through the IRS, which requires passing a certification test with an 80 percent or higher.

The threshold to qualify for this program is low, Carrillo said, so the program aims to serve many people. Carrillo noted the VITA program also partners with AARP and branches of the military to help service members with their filings.

“When taxpayers get these $1,000 refunds, we like to encourage and promote asset building,” Carrillo said. “One of the ways we do that is offering these savings bonds where the taxpayer can use a portion of their refund, if they choose, to purchase a U.S. savings bond as a way of promoting asset building.”

Carrillo said after an appointment is set up, the taxpayers need to bring with them a photo ID and a copy of their social security cards to verify identification and the related tax documents.

“It’s a great service the community provides,” Carrillo said. “As well as being a great service, it’s also financial education and assets building.”

George said through this program, participants can choose direct deposit of their tax return, so typically they will have their refund in about 10 days.

“If they’re low-income workers, they may receive a large refund at once, but often that doesn’t help them very far into the year if they haven’t thought ahead of putting back some for emergencies,” George said.

The VITA program is by appointment only, and to schedule an appointment call George at 903-813-3527. The program ends on April 14, and the VITA program will be at Texoma Workforce Solutions 1 p.m.-4 p.m. every Thursday until the deadline.