Free tax assistance program helps those in need

Graphic by Nick Foote/TNL

It’s that time of year again. Lady Liberty, dressed in her customary gloves and heavy winter boots, can be found dancing and waving signs out on the street corner, probably bumping to some iPod tunes to fight back against the winter chill. W-2 forms are being scrounged up, 1099 forms are being collected, banking receipts are being rifled through. Tax season will soon once again be in full swing.

For many, college students and otherwise, tax filing time is something generally not looked forward to—most would rather be doing anything but.

“I hate doing my own taxes,” said Rochelle Purpura, 20. “They’re really time consuming, and there’s so many things that can go wrong. It’d be so nice just to get to…avoid them.”

Unfortunately taxes cannot be avoided, but free tax assistance, on the other hand, is available. Students in the Business and Public Policy program are volunteering their time alongside the Volunteer Urban Tax Initiative and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance to provide free on campus tax assistance for UAA students and the Anchorage community.

Beginning Feb. 16, a group of five accounting students and two outside volunteers will be answering tax questions and helping file tax returns every Thursday from 1:30-7:30pm, at the Rasmuson Hall 207A. Further assistance will be given every Saturday at the Northeast Community Center near Muldoon, from 1-4 pm.

Service is extended to military personnel and foreign students, who frequently deal with additionally complicated tax returns. The free tax return help will run until April 16.

The program in its current form was devised two years ago, when Accounting Professor David Mason established a 495 Advanced Accounting Internship class, which functions as a nonpaid internship with a credit-upon-completion incentive. According to Mason, students undergo an “extensive” online training program through the IRS, which certifies them in beginning, intermediate and advanced income tax accounting training. Further training is given for military and foreign student certification.

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“It’s a big time commitment,” Mason said. “These students dedicate a huge chunk of their time to providing this service. And they have a great time doing it.”

Katie Hegland, a 27-year-old accounting major and the event coordinator, says the service has been a great success.

“We helped a ton of people in the community last year,” she said. “It was quite a big event. And there’s been a pretty even mix of students and community members, which is awesome—the shuttle service really helps out with that.”

Longtime volunteer Jeff Hummel, who works in an accounting firm and owns a bookkeeping firm, agrees about the positive impact the tax assistance creates.

“This service is really a great way to help people who generally don’t have their minds focused on doing taxes, and usually find it a scary process to begin with,” he said. “There’s an old saying—service is its own reward. And for those involved, the saying rings true. This is such a rewarding experience.”

Hegland said that one of the largest deductions students tend to miss is the American Opportunity Credit, which allows expense claims on tuition and other school fees, such as textbooks.

Additionally, one of the largest concerns students run into is whether they can claim themselves in their tax returns, or whether their parents still claim them. A majority of students, according to Hegland, are still claimed by their parents.

“We generally deal with a large amount of lower-income and mid-income people with these returns,” said Mason. “A significant concern comes in the form of whether people will owe anything, and whether they’ll be able to pay those costs. So we end up doing a lot of advising for people who may owe the IRS and aren’t sure how they’ll manage financially.”

UAA’s tax assistance program operates through an online system that automatically checks for any filing errors, making the possibility of misfiling or mistakes very rare. In addition to an outside volunteer with firm experience, there will also be an AARP (nonprofit nonpartisan program) expert onsite, so accounting students will always have a consultant to turn to if they have questions.

As Hummel explains, “It’s important to get taxpayers the very best tax service possible.”

Tax help will be held every Thursday from 1:30-7:30pm at RH A207 beginning Feb. 16, and every Saturday from 1-4pm at the Northeast Community Center on Muldoon Rd. until April 16.