Many happy returns
UNR accounting students try to make filing a little less taxing on low-income working people
Most people cringe at the thought of filing taxes. It’s a confusing, time-consuming process highlighted by the occasional paper cut. But by the grace of good will and class credit, over 80 business students from UNR have volunteered to file taxes for low-income families through a partnership program between UNR and the Community Service Agency (CSA), an organization well-known for its education program Head Start.
The tax preparation project began in 2006 when CSA, 1090 E. Eighth St., wanted to help more people get the earned income tax credit (EITC), a refundable credit that can increase low-income families’ annual income up to 40 percent, according to Gary Jansen, CSA finance director.
“It’s probably the best way for low wage earners with small families to get money back from the government to help them subsidize their life,” said Jansen.
The EITC was developed to give money back to working people without passing them through the welfare system. Last year, $80 billion in earned income credit went unclaimed. Many people didn’t know or didn’t care to take the time to file for the credit. This is where CSA comes in.
Avoid high interest
The goal of CSA’s tax program is to help educate the community on ways of getting the most out of their tax returns by filing for EITC and avoiding tempting offers like “rapid anticipation” loans, often offered through commercial tax preparers.
Rapid anticipation or rapid refund loans charge high interest rates, some as high as 150 percent in order to give clients refunds in advance to the normal waiting period (which on average takes about two weeks longer). In the end, clients lose a large chunk of their refund to high interest by not waiting.
“We are trying to help educate our clientele that if they’re patient they’ll get their full refund,” said Jansen. “If they have to go through a rapid refund loan, they’re giving a large percentage of that refund that they earned back to someone else.”
“We’re not targeting the commercial preparers because they are serving a market,” Jansen said. “But we are concerned about what it is actually costing clientele and what the benefit is in waiting.”
In 2007, the tax program began to flourish after CSA special projects manager Kelly Hugunine was asked to start filing taxes for low-income families. In her hesitation and lack of hands-on experience, she turned to UNR’s Richard Mason, associate professor of accounting, for student volunteers.
“When I came in here, they asked me to file taxes, and I’ve never filed taxes, so they told me I better go out and find some volunteers, and that was my first motivation,” Kelly said with a laugh.
Luckily for Hugunine, Mason and faculty took to the idea quickly, and the program was approved in less than a month.
“It’s a win-win situation all around,” said Mason. “Students get to experience clientele they would normally not see.”
Mason allows students to volunteer a minimum of 10 hours filing taxes for low-income families, in turn allowing them to skip their first exam. The majority of Mason’s students take advantage of this opportunity. Mason jokes that it’s in the students’ best interest to volunteer as he makes the first exam harder than the IRS certification test.
Although the program gives him some extra work, he doesn’t mind taking the time out to help with the “extra” bookkeeping. Every week Mason receives a spread sheet with the student’s hours and activity. He’s in charge of logging the hours and making sure every student works the required time.
As a member of the Nevada State Board of Equalization, Mason is no rookie to extra work. In 2004 Mason was appointed to the board by Gov. Kenny Guinn. The board reviews property tax disputes. This is Mason’s last year on the board.
But before students can attack the W-2s, they have to attack the books. All students are required to pass IRS tax training before preparing any taxes. The training is conducted through www.irs.gov and takes about 15 hours to complete.
“It’s a fairly extensive training manual, but they have been handling the training really well,” Jansen said.
Once students pass a certification test, they’ll go through additional training via a software program. By the end of the training, students will have the same certifications as commercial tax preparers.
During training, students get to choose among a basic, intermediate and an advanced class. The higher students go, the higher their grade will be in Mason’s accounting class.
While many students have volunteered through Mason’s accounting class, others have returned from previous years of volunteer work. Accounting major Brandon Gibson says he volunteered this year to experience tax preparation beyond the classroom.
“When you work with the community that needs a lot of help, you tend to appreciate what you have, and tend to want to help people more,” Jansen said.
“I feel like I would encounter something I wouldn’t normally encounter with a book,” said Gibson. “You’re working with real people. I would do it again next year.”
Milagro Guardado, a teacher’s aide for the Head Start program, has been coming to the agency to get her taxes prepared for the last two years.
“I like how they have been done the last two years,” she said. “They do a really good job, and I don’t have to pay a fee. I recommend the people who live in the community to take advantage of this program. It’s an awesome program for the children and families.”
The tax preparation program has been running on government grants for the last three years. The program costs $40,000 to run per year. This year, the program is out of grant money and must use agency funds. CSA is filing for new grants in order to keep the tax preparation program running for years to come.
Hugunine said the partnership model between the university and the CSA has been so successful, they’ve been contacted by Las Vegas organizations that would like to copy the model and use it in their city.
According to Jansen, the only setback in the tax preparation program besides funding is finding translators. A large portion of the clientele is Spanish speaking.
“It’s difficult because you can’t pull somebody off the street to translate because you’re dealing with someone’s personal financial history,” said Jansen.
On Feb. 19 and Feb. 21, students will prepare taxes at a local casino.
Although the majority of students have filed taxes through the CSA, students are free to decide where they volunteer. Other students have volunteered to filed taxes for an American Association of Retired Persons chapter and a Nevada Paiute tribal reservation.