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Public Partnerships Serving the Community

Collaborative Efforts to Provide Free Tax Preparation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ygnacio “Nash” Flores and Jeannie Liu
August 28, 2015

With the 2015 tax season behind us, a unique partnership and tax assistance program helped alleviate some of the apprehension people had about filing their income tax returns. The laws covering income tax preparation become more complex with each year, it is nearly impossible for many to comprehend the rules or to navigate the numerous forms required of the taxpayer. Many people look to professionally trained tax preparers to assist them in completing their tax forms. This unfortunately comes at a cost that many households cannot afford. Many people believe that a person has to pay for a service for it to be of quality. Here is where governmental agencies, higher education and private industry come together to assist households in filing their income tax forms.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sponsors a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program that provides free income tax preparation to qualified individuals and families who earn $53,000 or less during a reporting year. In California, the State Board of Equalization (BOE) adds their services to the VITA program by coordinating free income tax preparation and family services events. The BOE also works with their partners to ensure that the tax filing process maintains a standard that meets BOE and IRS criteria.

Rio Hondo College, located in Whittier, California is one of the higher education partners that work with the Internal Revenue Service to provide the VITA program to the community. Rio Hondo College’s Business Division accounting professor, Jeannie Liu, oversees and serves as the VITA program coordinator. In her six years of providing VITA services, Liu has designed a process that has been replicated at other higher educational institutions.

Taxpayers begin their filing process at an orientation center. Trained college students, serving as VITA volunteer staff, ascertain what services each person requires for filing their taxes. VITA volunteer staff ensures taxpayers have all the required personal documentation to file the income tax forms. Volunteers also use interviews to understand each taxpayer’s unique situation. From there, a VITA volunteer prepares the online tax return. Once the return is complete, the tax return is reviewed with the taxpayer before filing through the IRS’s online e-file program. Throughout this process, college staff, certified public accountants or enrolled agents (EA), double-check all work completed by the student VITA volunteers.

All VITA volunteers must pass VITA certification examinations administered by the IRS as well as sign the IRS privacy policy. Rio Hondo College provides a VITA course to train volunteers on the current tax law. The IRS provides free training materials for these classes. The volunteer preparer receives training in federal and state tax laws, including the use of electronic filing software as part of the IRS certification. The services provided include completion of IRS Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ, standard and itemized deductions, earned income credit and schedules A, B, C-EZ. Services are not provided for completion of Form 1040NR, schedules C, D, E, F, SE married filing separately, rental property and farm income.

The value of the program is that the IRS certifies volunteers to assist with filing income tax forms electronically, which is a skill they can use to work as tax preparers. Though VITA services provided are for basic tax preparation, the volunteers can inform the taxpayers of any special tax credits they may qualify for such as earned income tax credit, child tax credit, and credit for the elderly or the disabled. The IRS website states that many people are unaware of the more than 12,000 free tax preparation sites throughout the nation. Rio Hondo College works with many public and private partners to provide information about its VITA services.

In 2015, the Rio Hondo College VITA program processed over 248 tax returns and processed over $430,834 in tax refunds and over $240,839 in education credits with 30 student and two faculty volunteers. The VITA program increased in total refunds processed in 2015 compared to 2014 by up to 56 percent in the categories of federal refunds, Earned Income Credit, Education Credit and Child Tax Credit. The average cost of having a 2014 tax return prepared by a professional was $273, according to the National Society of Accountants. This amounted to a savings of over $67,700 in tax preparation fees to the community.

The VITA program’s 30 student volunteers learned a valuable skill while providing a much-needed free public service. Each student volunteer received a gold presidential volunteer award for collectively contributing over 1000 volunteer hours. They also received certificates of recognition from the Internal Revenue Service and the Board of Equalization.

Rio Hondo College is already planning to expand the program as there were many people requesting the free tax service than there were appointments available. The VITA program is a textbook example of public partnerships that serve the community. Liu projects that the VITA program at Rio Hondo College will surpass the previous year’s services to the community.

Authors: Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, EdD, MBA, MPS, MA is the dean of public safety academic programs at Rio Hondo College. Jeannie Liu is an accounting professor at Rio Hondo College. 

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