VITA outreach helping families prepare taxes
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG, Banner Staff Writer
Feb 20, 2013 | 1008 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CLAUDIUS PRATT, a Lee University accounting student, assists Michelle Biller, a Georgetown resident who works as a courier for FedEx, with her federal income taxes as part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.  Banner Photo, CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
CLAUDIUS PRATT, a Lee University accounting student, assists Michelle Biller, a Georgetown resident who works as a courier for FedEx, with her federal income taxes as part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Banner Photo, CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
Navigating the process of doing federal income taxes can be daunting for those at a point of transition in their lives — whether they are doing taxes on their own for the first time or adjusting to retirement.

This year, four different Cleveland organizations are serving as locations for the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program for people who need help navigating their tax forms.

Any person representing a household with an income of $51,000 or less per year can take part in the VITA program, according to the IRS website. All four locations offer the time and expertise of volunteers who are certified by the IRS to do other people’s taxes for free.

One such location is Lee University. Junior and senior accounting students from the university gain experience doing taxes for others while under the supervision of faculty.

Dr. Greg Della Franco, an assistant professor of accounting at the university, said more and more Cleveland area residents have taken advantage of the VITA program there each year. Seven years ago, during the program’s first year at that location, students helped file 64 tax returns. Last year, that number was 580, and he and his students are expecting even more this year.

“Our numbers are actually up over last year,” Della Franco said.

In order to assist people with their taxes, all volunteers — regardless of location — must take a test from the IRS and receive a score of at least 80 percent, Della Franco said. This ensures all volunteers know how to handle various tax situations under current laws.

Della Franco said he has seen many people come to the VITA program feeling stressed about their taxes. A volunteer sitting down with them to decipher their financial records and assist them with either a paper or online income federal tax return form can often soothe that stress.

Carol Hatmaker, who is retired from working at Charleston Hosiery, has been taking part in the VITA program at Lee University for three years with her husband, Larry. She said having someone help them with their taxes ensures they are always able to stay on top of any changes in tax requirements.

“There’s always something changing,” Hatmaker said. “They stay up to date here.”

Della Franco said he and his students see a variety of people every year but many of them are either college students learning how to do their own taxes for the first time or senior citizens learning how to do their taxes after retirement.

Dale Hodgkinson, a Cleveland resident who has taken part in the VITA program for about three years as well, said the program is good for anyone who wants someone to make sure they don’t miss anything.

“I just wanted to make sure it’s correct,” Hodgkinson said. “I think it’s a great program for senior adults.”

A retired plant foreman of a company called Century Tool in his home state of Illinois, Hodgkinson said he always paid someone to do his taxes because he had more complex tax returns than he does now. Now, his income mostly consists of Social Security checks and payouts from personal investments. He now prepares his own taxes and said he appreciates the fact he can have someone help him navigate the process for free.

Ayodeji Oluwajana, one of the student volunteers at Lee University, said he and his classmates have been learning what can’t really be learned in textbooks — how to help a diverse set of people file their taxes.

“Before, I don’t think I ever knew how to do taxes,” Oluwajana said.

In addition to having a hands-on opportunity to learn about American tax laws, he said taking part in the VITA program is giving him the opportunity to meet people in Cleveland he may not have otherwise.

Oluwajana came to Cleveland from the country of Nigeria to study accounting at the university. He said he plans to become an accountant and eventually return to his home country to work. However, he said he hopes the volunteer work he and his classmates are doing will “help society” here by allowing people on low incomes to save the money they might otherwise have to spend on tax services.

“We try to help them to the best of our ability,” he said.

But Lee University is by no means the only location where people wanting free tax help can go. Three other locations are scattered around town with different sets of volunteers — all certified by the IRS — ready to help people file their taxes.

Linda Finnell, coordinator of the VITA program at the Bradley Baptist Association, said that location does things differently in that people must make appointments before they can sit down and work through their taxes with a volunteer. She said this often means a shorter wait for people having their taxes done.

“We have people here who do Spanish returns, too,” Finnell said.

The Bradley Baptist Association is the only Cleveland VITA location at which tax returns done in Spanish can be filed, according to the IRS website.

Anyone interested in getting free tax help through VITA can also have their taxes done in Kmart — inside the store and across from the customer service desk — and at the Cleveland Community Center.

Lee University’s VITA program is available on Fridays from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. The program takes place in room 109 on the bottom floor of the Walker Memorial Building, which is at the intersection of 11th and Ocoee streets between the Higginbotham Administration Building and the Lee University chapel. For more information, call 614-8000.

The Bradley Baptist Association’s VITA program is available by appointment. The association is located at 2707 North Ocoee St. For more information, call 476-5493.

The VITA program at Kmart is available on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The store is located in the Bradley Square Mall off Paul Huff Parkway. Call 476-4700 for more information.

Those in need of tax help can also visit the Cleveland Community Center at 1334 Church St. S.E. Walk-in hours are Tuesdays 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Wednesdays 2 to 5 p.m., Thursdays 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call 559-3322.

Anyone having their taxes done as part of VITA must have a photo ID, as well as the Social Security cards and Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers of everyone listed on their tax forms with them. If they have them, they should also take any wage earning statements (such as Form W-2), bank interest or dividend statements, plus copies of last’s year’s tax returns.