Accounting majors Teri Lyn Walton and Carolina Sanchez fill in the tax return information of mass communication alumni Zack Hill on Saturday, Feb. 7. Hill was the pair’s third client of the day.
Accounting students Teri Lyn Walton and Carolina Sanchez look over a yellow sheet of paper in Morgan Hall room 202. Their eyes dart from the crinkled page to the quiet computer monitor in front of them. They murmur questions and statements to each other, ensuring that the info they’ve received is one hundred percent accurate.
The two women are members of Montevallo’s chapter of the nationally recognized Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, a community service project hosted by the College of Business’ Center for Professional Practice. Originally beginning in the Spring of 2012 at UM, the program aims to provide a free tax return service to low income clients and those in need. University students and professors, as well as the rest of the Montevallo community, are encouraged to seek their assistance.
Walton and Sanchez are part of a team of seven total students plus UM associate professor of accounting Dr. Douglas Smith.
Though it is only Smith’s second year at the University, he is enthusiastic and confident when talking about what the VITA program offers both clients and volunteers. “If you look at just the basic fee to go to an accounting services firm and get a tax return done, it might cost you a hundred dollars. We do it for free. We do a good quality service,” he explained.
The process goes like this: anyone who wishes to have their taxes done by the VITA program can either set up an appointment via three telephone numbers or can simply walk in with their materials in hand. After a client arrives, they are directed to a room where they fill out a basic intake form that asks for name, date-of-birth, dependent or independent status and so on.
After completing the form, the client is paired with two student volunteers who use an accounting software to enter their information and complete their taxes.
Smith said there are always two students working on a single return. “I personally do not like to do tax returns by myself, and I’ve done this for years. Because anybody can overlook a number, make a mistake and doggone it, every button and every number you put in can mean 50 to one hundred bucks to a client.”
Each student volunteer is required to take an online test hosted by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Smith says the process is fairly challenging, with students having to complete hours of studying and a long testing process.
While Smith describes his role during the sessions as a “rover” offering help when he can, senior accounting major Stacy Burke is the last pair of eyes to examine each return.
This is Burke’s second year volunteering in the program. She said she approached Smith earlier in the year requesting to be this year’s quality review.
This role is required by the IRS to double check all the numbers in each return.
Burke has worked in an accounting office for close to 20 years and says she appreciates the work she does. “I enjoy telling people ‘Hey, you are getting money back’ but when you have somebody and you have to tell them ‘You owe a thousand dollars’ or something, that’s not always fun.”
The program will occur every satuday until April 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Burke explained the importgance of getting a tax return done. “They’re taking taxes out of your check, and it’s a possibility most, if not all, of that back a lot of times so why wouldn’t you file?”
While six of the volunteers in the program are new to tax returns, Smith said that they are certified, supervised and conscientious students who work hard to provide the free service.
“Some accounting services earn their money by doing lots of returns. The way you do that is you work really fast. Here, we’re going to take our time. If we have to lay it aside and come back to it the next week, we’ll do that if we need to do some research,” said Smith.
Burke says she thinks the program also offers valuable experience to accounting majors. “Whether you’re dealing with audit, income tax, it doesn’t matter, you’re dealing with people everyday and you’ve got to know how to talk to them,” the senior said.
“In 2012, we served 30 clients with four volunteers and in 2013 we served 42 clients with five volunteers,” said Dr. Bill Haymer, the director for the Center of Professional Practice. Haymer said that the program’s reach goal for 2015 is 100 total clients, roughly a 30 person increase from last year’s draw.
Smith says that even by April, he won’t be able to completely give volunteers the reins. “Every client is different,” he reasoned. “But they certainly will be much more capable and confident. By the end of this period, they will feel really good about the work they’ve done.”
As Walton and Sanchez finish their second return of the day, Smith offers delighted encouragement to his nervous students. “You two are famous now. Everyone’s asking for you to do their tax returns,” he chuckled.