Tax time made easier with help of VITA and UTRGV student volunteers

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PHOTO 1: Alfonso Martinez, a UTRGV senior accounting major (left), and Dr. Andres Bello, UTRGV lecturer and assistant director of the School of Accountancy, help a taxpayer at the Palm Valley Community Center on February 25. Both are volunteers with the United Way of South Texas’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which provides free tax preparation for qualified persons with incomes of $54,000 or less. A large contingent of UTRGV student volunteers are assisting with the VITA program this year including members of the Institute of Management Accountants and  the Association of Latino Professionals for America student organizations.  (UTRGV Photo by Gail Fagan)

Texas Border Business

By Gail Fagan 

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – March 3, 2017 – Accounting students at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley were making paying taxes a bit easier for a number of RGV residents Feb. 25 at the Palm Valley Community Center in McAllen.  

The students – all members of the student chapter of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) – are participating during tax season in the United Way of South Texas’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program 

In its sixth year, VITA assists families earning less than $54,000 a year with their income tax preparation free of charge at multiple sites in Hidalgo and Starr counties. 

“Helping the community is something big for me, especially in the Valley – a lot of people here need help,” said Jesus Lopez, 25, a senior accounting major and IMA vice president for community service. “But, more importantly, is that this experience helps students to close the gap between studying accounting and practicing accounting.” 

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The clients are very appreciative, Lopez said, especially when VITA volunteers find credits that they did not know they were eligible for.

Last year, the United Way of South Texas reported the VITA program prepared 3,102 returns bringing in $6.1 million in tax refunds. As of Feb. 24 this year, VITA has already served 2,056 families with $5.7 million returning to the community in tax refunds.    

All VITA volunteers are required to be certified at a basic or advanced level by the IRS and are overseen by a site coordinator and university faculty who manage accuracy of quality reviews of prepared returns. The taxes are filed at the sites using free electronic filing software. 

Client assistance is available in both English and Spanish. Accommodations can also be provided for the deaf or hearing impaired.

Murray Alford, 74, a Canadian citizen but permanent U.S. resident in Mission, said this is the second year he has come to the center where UTRGV students have assisted him and would recommend the service “in a heartbeat” for those who qualify. 

“It’s convenient and having it done free is fantastic,” he said. “For senior citizens, every penny counts.” 

IMA advisers Dr. Andres Bello, a lecturer and assistant director of UTRGV’s School of Accountancy, and Delia Sanchez, also an accounting lecturer, help oversee the student volunteers at the Palm Valley Center site and answer client questions before final returns undergo quality review and are submitted. 

Bello said volunteering with VITA provides students an opportunity to participate in active learning. 

“Theoretically, we teach that in the classroom, but this is the hands on,” he said. “Students value being involved in helping the community but it is also important for them on their résumés.” 

He said the current average charge for tax preparation in the Valley is around $300. 

“We do it for free so we assume this is keeping some money in their pocket,” Bello said. “Here, $300 is a week of groceries.” 

Regularly, there are 40-plus IMA students working Saturdays at the Palm Valley Center and at various other VITA sites, including the Brownsville campus. All VITA sites in southern Cameron County are made possible through the United Way of Southern Cameron County.   

Other accounting, finance and other business related students from UTRGV’s Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA) organization also assisted taxpayers this year. For the past five years, ALPFA students have helped manage a VITA site on the Edinburg campus, this year located in the Education Building. 

In addition, from early January to March 3, UTRGV students assisted qualified persons earning $64,000 a year or less to use a self-guided step-by-step website MyFreeTaxes.com to file their taxes free. The MyFreeTaxes help sites – one on the Brownsville campus and one on the Edinburg campus – were also made possible by the respective United Way organizations.  

Qualified persons interested in receiving assistance at a VITA site must bring the following:

  • Valid identification.
  • Social Security cards for all household members.
  • Forms W-2, W-2G, 1099-R, from all employers.
  • Interest and dividend statements from banks (Form 1099).
  • A copy of last year’s tax return if available.
  • Bank routing numbers and account numbers for direct deposit.
  • Total paid for day care provider and the day care provider’s tax identifying number.
  • To file taxes electronically on a married filing joint tax return, both spouses must be present to sign the required forms.

Hidalgo and Starr County VITA sites, and days and times of operation, are available at this link: http://unitedwayofsotx.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2016-2017-VITA-Site-Hours-of-Operation-2.pdf 

Cameron County VITA sites, made possible from United Way of Southern Cameron County, are available at this link:  https://www.unitedwayrgv.org/volunteer-income-tax-assistance-sites-2017.

For more information, contact the United Way of South Texas at (956) 686-6331 or the United Way of Southern Cameron County at (956) 548-6880.