UNC Asheville volunteers reach more people with free tax preparation help
Thanks to a group of UNC Asheville volunteers, April 15 brought a lot less anxiety and even some smiles for many low-and-moderate income people in Asheville and Cherokee. UNC Asheville students, alumni, staff and faculty offered free help preparing 675 income tax returns (including state and federal returns) which should amount to more than $438,000 in tax refunds.
“Some of the clients were incredibly grateful,” said senior Hilary Arthur, part of the UNC Asheville volunteer team that spent many recent Saturdays at Pack Library in downtown Asheville preparing and filing income tax returns. “It was very satisfying to be able to help, and a good experience to get out into the community,” said Arthur, a math major from Charlotte who is also working on a minor in economics. “It was a good way to learn more about the tax code, too.”
UNC Asheville’s volunteers were part of the IRS VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program, which offers free income tax preparation for people with incomes of $50,000 or less. VITA volunteers are trained in tax laws and procedures, and confidentiality. “Everyone who works at a VITA site must pass the Volunteer Standards of Conduct exam, whether they are greeting taxpayers, preparing returns or packaging them,” says Monique Taylor, UNC Asheville’s director of Internal Audit, who also directs the university’s VITA program.
We’ve gotten great feedback from the first-time student volunteers—they learn about the tax code and they feel great providing a service to real people who need help.”
— Joe Sulock, UNC Asheville Cary Caperton Owen Professor of Economics
For the 10 UNC Asheville students who participated, the training was valuable; the hands-on experience was even more important. “In our classes, of course we prepared tax returns,” said senior Anna Roberto, a financial accounting major from Morganton, “but with face-to-face contact, I really could see that I was helping someone out.”
Student volunteers helped prepare tax returns at Pack Library every Saturday from February through April 14; they received service learning credits for their participation. UNC Asheville volunteers also provided free tax assistance at Industries for the Blind in Asheville, and the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville.
Five recent graduates who served as volunteers for their second straight year were key members of UNC Asheville’s VITA team. Dwight Ehrlichman received his diploma in Accounting and Management last year, and while studying for his CPA certification exams this winter, donated many more hours to VITA. “It’s such a good feeling,” Ehrlichman says. “You can see what a difference it makes in someone’s life and how grateful people are— people who can’t afford to pay a private tax preparer. Some people have been afraid to file, but when they see they’ve been owed refunds for a number of years and you get them all caught up, you can just see the weight come off them.”
Thanks to the volunteers, UNC Asheville expanded the program this year to sites on the Qualla Boundary, helping prepare more than 200 tax returns for members of the Eastern Bank of Cherokee Indians. University volunteers joined Cherokee volunteers providing in-person assistance, and Taylor led implementation of a “Virtual VITA” program where tax documents were scanned and transmitted securely from Cherokee to Asheville and university volunteers.
“This was invaluable,” said Karen Kennedy, a CPA and former financial operations director for the Eastern Band, who served as VITA site coordinator in Cherokee. “It is so important for people in the community who have to file but don’t make a lot of money to have a place to go where they won’t be charged and where they can get help if they have problems. Otherwise, low-income people who are eligible for free filing end up having to pay $200 to a preparer.” Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are exempt from state income taxes but must pay federal taxes.
Each return prepared by UNC Asheville’s VITA program was reviewed multiple times, according to Joe Sulock, UNC Asheville’s Cary Caperton Owen Professor of Economics who teaches the service-learning course students take to become VITA volunteers. “Two accounting graduates, Dwight Ehrlichman and Rob Putterman, along with Monique Taylor, review the returns, so our returns are accurate.” says Sulock. “And we’ve gotten great feedback from the first-time student volunteers—they learn about the tax code and they feel great providing a service to real people who need help.” Sulock plans to offer the service-learning course again next winter so UNC Asheville’s VITA program can continue to expand.