Students help make IRS returns less taxing VITA volunteers fill out forms

March 10, 1996|By Lisa T. Hill | Lisa T. Hill,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

For Susan Milstein, it has become the perfect way to merge her skills as a certified public accountant with her desire to give something back to the community.

After four years, Western Maryland College's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program has produced a cadre of trained student volunteers who have become indispensable to those who can't afford professional help in preparing their taxes.

The idea came to Ms. Milstein, a Western Maryland professor and the VITA program internship adviser, a few years ago while she was taking a sabbatical leave from her teaching job.

After a little research, Ms. Milstein found that the Internal Revenue Service had a program to help taxpayers who were older, disadvantaged, handicapped or non-English-speaking.

VITA has 25 IRS-trained student volunteers who do tax returns three times a week for students, Carroll residents or anyone who asks for help. The student volunteers receive college credits in lieu of payment.

Senior Karen Beamer, a student volunteer during three of VITA's four years at Western Maryland, is Ms. Milstein's "right-hand person," not only completing tax returns, but also fielding calls for appointments and scheduling the volunteers.

"We try to schedule enough student volunteers to have good turnover each session," Ms. Beamer said. She said that if the volunteer is a trainee, the program tries to have an experienced volunteer or volunteer accountant available, too.

Many Western Maryland students make use of VITA because they need tax records to prove eligibility for financial aid.

Junior Leslie Kirkwood, a political science major and sociology minor, said she came to VITA because "it [her tax return] needed to be done."

She said her parents usually completed the tax forms, but this year she did not have time to mail the paperwork home and have it returned before the financial aid forms were due at the college.

Ms. Milstein said she originally planned to gear the program toward students and the college community but soon found that many people in the area also needed VITA's services.

Jerry McDaniel of Westminster said he has come every year since the program began. This was the first time his taxes were done by computer, he said.

"I like [VITA]," said Mr. McDaniel, who had gotten tax preparation help at the Carroll County public library in previous years. But VITA "gets [the forms] done sooner, and there is not much of a wait."

Judy Miller of Westminster, an aide at the Carroll County Health Department, said this was her second time to make use of VITA. Both times her forms were completed by hand.

"[The volunteers] take a lot of time," she said. "They do the best they can for you so you can get back the most money possible."

A CPA is required to be at each session to check the student volunteers' work and approve it. Ms. Beamer said the handwritten and computer forms are double- and triple-checked for mistakes.

The VITA program does almost all kinds of tax forms, but some more complicated returns may require professional help. "They are beyond the scope of what we usually do," Ms. Beamer said.

Ms. Milstein said many people who do their own tax forms bring them to a VITA session to have the CPA check it.

"The first year we had students, but we didn't have clients," she said. "We would sit around looking at each other."

But now, three years later, on the opening night the program had five families and had to turn one man away because there was not enough time to assist him, she said.

Ms. Beamer, who receives additional credits because of her extra responsibilities, compiled a mailing list of last year's clients and invited them back again when VITA reopened last month. Sophomore Michael Rockefeller also has extra responsibility helping Ms. Beamer on Saturdays. He and junior Ryan John will run the program next year after Ms. Beamer graduates.

"At the beginning, students don't know much, but they learn quickly," Ms. Milstein said. "Some students get their own clients, people who keep coming back and requesting them."

Senior Arman Latif, a business/economics major, said the VITA program uses computer software called the Kiplinger TaxCut.

"It's easier to make mistakes hand-copying the same numbers over and over," Mr. Latif said. "This program alleviates that problem."

For information on the VITA program or for an appointment, call Karen Beamer at (410) 751-8261 or Susan Milstein at (410) 857-2456.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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