Business was bustling Monday night at the new Codman Square home of the Dotwell Civic Health Institute.
Operated by Dotwell, a joint venture of the Dorchester House and the Codman Square health centers, the program is headed by longtime Dorchester community activist Doreen Treacy.
"We are looking at how to build financial capacity, social capitol and in general the overall health of the community," Treacy explained. "All this is done in collaboration with the clinical work at our health centers. It's very interconnected, interwoven- the clinical and non-clinical components are multi-dimensional. I would not be involved in evaluating anyone's blood pressure or their vital signs&endash;but I do evaluate their financial vital signs."
Treacy says that the DotWell team interviews clients much as a clinical provider would do with a patient.
"We're doing that with clients from the Franklin Field Housing Development, and also working with Mt. Washington Bank on that," she said. "It's taking the best practices of public health and applying them to the fiscal health, looking at it as a key indicator of health for both the individual and the community."
The center operates six days a week, and adds extra hours and staff during the tax season, when volunteer preparers are available to assist residents in preparing their federal and state tax returns. On Monday night, perhaps 80 local residents were assisted by the staff, offering not just tax preparation and credit counseling.
Through a partnership with Mt. Washington Bank, residents can open new bank accounts, and even receive a free gift when they do.
"One stop shopping&endash;an excellent partnership with the bank," Treacy says. "We treat our neighbors and community folk who walk into this building as our clients. It's holistic tax prep in action, with 60 to 80 people waiting for help in tax preparation, and it's all free.
"They are opening bank accounts for folks who don't have a bank account. It allows taxpayers to open one tonight. They go into the tax room and we're able to put the routing number and their bank account right into the filing. They can get their refund much more quickly and safely than if they had a tax check mailed right to their home."
The center makes use of electronic filing of tax returns, and currently, Treacy says the state is sending out refunds within five days from the time they receive an e-file, while the federal refunds often come in ten days.
"They are direct deposited into a bank account," she says. "Some people have told us they have received their state refund within three days."
Mt. Washington Bank officer Jack Forbush say his bank is delighted with the partnership with Dotwell.
"Ours is a very simple supportive role," he says. "We bring staff onsite for a number of weeks to open accounts, and to facilitate the direct deposit of tax refunds right into their accounts, rather than having people take their checks right to the check-cashing store. It saves people money and many of them are 'unbanked' starting out so we want to give them a positive experience with banking, and with Doreen's help we try to have a little fun."
The Dotwell program staff and volunteers have become expert in bringing tax assistance to low income families. The volunteer tax preparers show taxpayers how to take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), under which persons earning less than $40,000 can claim important tax credits.
"The Earned Income Tax Credit is the largest anti-poverty program that comes out of the Federal government," Treacy says. "But it's written into the tax code, and not into, say, the health and human services budget. So it's not something that anyone sees. But it lifts more families out of poverty every year than any other federal program."
Treacy says that the free service has expanded dramatically this year.
"Last year, our two sites- the Codman Square site and the Dorchester House site assisted over 2500 taxpayers and brought back almost $4 million in refunds."
This year, halfway through the tax season, she says the sites have already processed 1600 tax returns, and had over 350 credit advising sessions, a 53 percent increase from last year's pace.
(The program is available January through April 15 every year, and by appointment year round. It operates from two locations, DotWell@450, 450 Washington Street, Codman Square and the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, 1353 Dorchester Avenue, Fields Corner. More information at dotwell.org , 617-822-8171).