Murray State's VITA Program Provides Free Tax Preparation Services to Local Community
Murray State University's Accounting Department and the Epsilon Nu chapter of Beta Alpha Psi have partnered with the United Way of Murray-Calloway County to offer the 45th year of the VITA, or volunteer income tax assistance, program to the local community.
The VITA program allows local community members to have their income taxes completed, reviewed, and submitted by a team of trained student volunteers. Tax assistance is offered on a first-come, first-serve basis. This will be the program's 45th year operating in the community and the first year of their new, digital format.
VITA is supported by the United Way of Murray-Calloway County. United Way MCC Director of Community Development Gerald Washington says the VITA program is part of United Way's mission of "impacting families and individuals. [Tax services] are real needs for people who certainly don't have the resources to have their tax preparation done without some cost. This is a quality program. We're about impacting the community in ways to help meet human resource needs in Murray-Calloway County."
Last year, 50 MSU students were trained in IRS-sponsored certifications, but the COVID-related university closure cut the number of VITA sessions in half. This year, there are 36 volunteers and a brand new online format that VITA participants hope will keep services available to the community regardless of weather, closures, or otherwise.
"When we receive your documents, we prepare them, we speak with you, we review your tax return with you. This year, there's two different ways for you to give us your documents," explains Hannah Tucker, senior accounting major at MSU and four-year veteran of the VITA program.
"You can come in on the Fridays of the sessions from 10:15 am to 1 pm and drop them off. We have a special way to be able to scan your documents in and send you on your way. Whenever your return is finished, we will e-mail and call you. Or you can upload them on our website from Monday through Thursday. Our website is a very exciting new addition because we're able to provide an intake form for individuals who don't want to come in. They're able to download it, fill it out, and upload it with the remaining of their tax documents. I think that's something we'll definitely be using in later years as well because I think we can probably serve a lot more people that way."
The new virtual method is completely secure, adds MSU accounting professor Dr. Denise O'Shaughnessy. After documents are uploaded through the website's portal, "we'll call and interview them, send them their tax returns password-protected, we'll call them with the password. They'll open it, review it, if we're good to go, I review it again, and then we e-file."
For those uncomfortable with the website feature, O'Shaughnessy says that clients can make an appointment with the accounting department to go over the tax return in person, socially distanced. "We're trying our best to offer any way that they feel comfortable to get their taxes done," O'Shaughnessy says.
"One other thing that we need to bring up is the stimulus checks. So, we've had two rounds. We're about to have a third round. If [a client] did not receive round one or round two, this is how the IRS is requiring people to get their stimulus checks. They're not taking phone calls, letting you write letters...you have to file a 2020 tax return. Whether it's zero or not, you still have to file it to get those stimulus checks."
The VITA program is widely beneficial to the local community, but it's also a fantastic learning opportunity for the student volunteers involved. "You're getting hands-on work," says Garrison Evans, a senior accounting major at MSU and two-year VITA veteran. "In class, you're given numbers and a paragraph. In real life, someone shows up with a bunch of stuff you don't need, some stuff you do. You have to make sure it works out right. There's some kind of accountability in this--you don't want to be the one messing up someone else's return. You know people are reviewing it, but it helps to put a little bit of real-life pressure on it. Later on...you won't be as nervous or concerned heading into this."
For Tucker, her experience as a freshman volunteer in the VITA program helped her get an internship the following year. "I was already able to start getting additional real-world experience just from volunteering a few Fridays in the spring. It kind of solidifies what you learn in the classroom. You can see it on the exam and on the homework, but once you start actually interacting with a client, you're getting those professional social skills developed. It is really, really beneficial."
In addition to their classroom education, student volunteers have to "go through a full day of training," O'Shaugnessy adds. "They take IRS-sponsored certifications. Even to be a greeter, as we call someone who takes the paperwork and meets our clientele, they have to take two ethics tests before they even qualify. We have different levels of tax certification--basic, advanced, and foreign--[they all require] different tests, all IRS-sponsored."
"We have our wonderful site coordinators that oversee them and help them and hold their hand and answer questions," she continues. "I never leave their sight. I'm there the entire time answering questions and guiding them. Then, when it's all said and done, I review every return prior to e-filing it just to make sure our clients are protected and the adequate information is on their returns."
The VITA program's Friday sessions include February 26th, March 12th, March 19th, and March 26th. Client walk-in drop-off hours are 10:15 am to 1 pm on Fridays. Online submissions are open anytime Mondays through Thursdays now through the final session date. More information, including a link to the United Way MCC website, can be found on the Murray State's VITA website.
The United Way of Murray Calloway-County is currently accepting donations to their COVID-19 relief fund, for which they've already raised an unprecedented $95,000. "We give dollars directly to individuals who are behind on their rent, mortgages, utilities, in ways that really make a difference and encourage people to hang through this pandemic effort," Washington says.
"We're continuing with literacy programs, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library programs, food sufficiency and security--we're continuing with our normal mission. We're just really focused on this COVID relief effort right now. [VITA helps] make sure that [community members and] especially our seniors have a way of making sure that they get assistance in a time that's so stressful as well."