Free tax assistance geared toward low-income Kern County residents is available through a collaborative volunteer program that lasts until April 18.

The free help is available at 15 locations throughout the county and has been coordinated by United Way of Kern County for the last four years.

More than 6,000 returns are expected to be filed this tax season at local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites, said Rachel Almaraz, United Way's community impact and investment manager.

Roughly 75 volunteers are participating in the effort this year, she said.

Many of the volunteers, including about a dozen students from Cal State Bakersfield, have gone through 40 hours of training to be certified by the Internal Revenue Service to help taxpayers prepare and file tax returns.

"Most people volunteer because they enjoy it and they want to help serve the community," Almaraz said.

The initiative saved Kern County residents an estimated $430,000 in tax preparation fees last year, Almaraz said.

Clients must bring proof of identification as well as Social Security cards and earning statements from all employers. Many of the VITA sites also provide free electronic filing.

The VITA program runs through April 18, this year's deadline for filing taxes. The deadline is slightly delayed because Emancipation Day, a public holiday in Washington, D.C., will be observed April 15.

On a separate note, people who last year earned less than $48,362 might be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which distributes refunds to taxpayers based on marital status and number of children.

For more details about the VITA program, see the accompanying list of program sites or call the county's free information service at 211.