Tax Relief Up North: How NMCAA’s Tax Program Bridges the Gaps

Northwest Michigan has a lot going for it: charming towns, breathtaking natural beauty, and more than its fair share of renowned wineries and microbreweries. However, communities across this sprawling landscape can face unique challenges when accessing essential services. Thankfully, CEDAM member Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency (NMCAA) has managed a program offering no-cost tax preparation services across the region for over two decades and continues to expand its services to meet community members’ diverse needs.

Reaching Every Corner, Every Client

Many community members in the region live more than 50 miles from the nearest tax site. They may have no access to public transportation, be homebound, or lack the necessary technology to access virtual services. This is the reality for many in NMCAA’s service area. Some even reside on remote islands like Beaver Island, 32 miles offshore.

“Serving a diverse population across ten counties requires a nuanced approach,” says Karen Emerson, who heads the NMCAA Tax Program. “We can’t just rely on a single office location. We have to be able to meet people where they are, whether that’s in more highly populated places like Traverse City or more remote, rural areas with limited internet access.”

Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency tackles this challenge by establishing tax preparation sites strategically throughout the region. Partners–like Benzie Senior Resources, Benzie Area Christian Neighbors, Charlevoix First Baptist Church, Kalkaska Senior Center, Manton Senior Center, and Manistee Senior Center–provide welcoming spaces for residents to access tax services.

Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency understands that convenient accessibility is crucial and looks different for everyone. “We offer a variety of options to make filing taxes as easy as possible,” Emerson explains. “Clients can choose from in-person appointments, drop-off services, mail-in options, and even a fully virtual platform through for those with easy internet access.”

Building Bridges for a Stronger Community

Collaboration is at the heart of NMCAA’s success. They forge strong partnerships with local organizations, leveraging their networks and expertise to reach a wider audience. This collaborative spirit ensures that everyone, regardless of location, background, or access to technology, has the resources they need to file their taxes and claim every dollar they’ve earned.

“Our ideal partner has four qualities: time, space, community, and heart,” says Britney Grzesiak, NMCAA tax program coordinator. “Time and space are critical, but they don’t mean much without having trusted relationships with community members and the desire to help. ”

Since 2004, NMCAA has fostered local collaboration by leading the Northwest Michigan Tax Coalition (NTMC). Members, like AARP, Michigan Works!, and several area senior centers and libraries, work together to raise awareness of available free tax prep services and the importance of filing credits like the EITC.

“Every partner relationship and service delivery method is unique to the region and clients they serve,” says Grzesiak. “That’s what makes it all work… [partners] that want to help their community, help the people in their region, and work together.”

A Story of Impact: Saving a Home Through Filing

The impact of NMCAA’s critical services can be felt well beyond the moment a return is filed. Here’s a powerful example:

“One client working with an NMCAA housing and budget coach faced potential foreclosure due to mortgage delinquency. Upon closer examination, the coach discovered the fixed-income client hadn’t been filing their taxes. Recognizing potential eligibility for property tax credits, the NMCAA tax department backfiled four years of returns. This act of service provided the client with a much-needed financial boost, allowing them to catch up on their mortgage and save their home.”

A Vision for the Future: Expanding Services and Breaking Down Barriers

Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency isn’t content with the status quo. They’re constantly striving to improve and expand their services. As a result, they recently received a grant from CEDAM to expand their services this tax season and well into the summer. Here’s a glimpse into their exciting plans for the future:

  • Flexible options for busy lives: Recognizing the needs of working families, NMCAA will be offering evening and weekend appointments, making tax preparation more easily accessible than ever.
  • Adding to the team: A brand new Tax Education Outreach Specialist will join the team, dedicated to building bridges with senior centers, colleges, and tribal centers. Their focus will be getting involved in the community and meeting people where they are by attending local events, tabling at resource fairs, presenting to local organizations that serve similar clientele, and more!
  • Thinking outside the box: To raise awareness and reach new demographics, NMCAA is exploring innovative outreach strategies. Eye-catching billboards, targeted online and radio ads, and pop-up tax offices in high-traffic areas are all part of their creative arsenal.

“We want to break down any barriers that might prevent people from filing their taxes and claiming the refunds they deserve,” says Emerson. “[This funding will help us] put in place systems for us to reach new populations who are not currently using free tax preparation and those who are hardest to reach.”

Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency serves as a shining example of effectively delivering critical services in diverse rural communities. Their focus on inclusive service delivery, commitment to community collaboration, and unwavering dedication to their clients make them a fantastic example for free tax preparation programs everywhere.