Handy and Pinkney

Joanne Handy of Conneautville (left) watches as Allegheny College junior Kobe Pinkney prepares her federal taxes this week. Pinkney is part of the Meadville Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program that offers the public free tax preparation.

Every spring semester, a second-floor corner of the Meadville Public Library is transformed into a beehive of activity.

The Meadville Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program employs 30 Allegheny College students under the training and supervision of Professor Stephanie Martin. Collectively, they file 1,000 tax returns — federal, state and local — free of charge to area residents, and Martin said they could do even more in the future. All the clients have to do is present photo identification and their income documents.

"I could imagine us doing 1,800 returns a year instead of just 1,000 with the same number of computers and people," Martin said. "The first two weeks of April are busy. February is the crazy chaos of everyone trying to get their stuff done early. We’re a lot of times just staring at each other in March."

The Meadville VITA Program is an IRS-sponsored program, and IRS stakeholder partnerships, education and communication (SPEC) coordinators conduct regular site reviews to verify things are running smoothly. All the preparers in Martin's program are advanced certified, meaning they can file things like itemized deductions and self-employment taxes, and each return is reviewed by two sets of eyes.

Martin also trains students in filing railroad retirement benefit forms and PA 1000s, the property tax rebate. Martin said the overall education was comparable to the training of H&R Block preparers.

"45 percent of our clients are over 65, so most of them qualify for the property tax rebate," Martin said. "It’s really funny to me to watch the students fill it out because it’s a super simple form, but it takes them 45 minutes to understand it the first couple of times. But then they get better at it."

Typically, the VITA program schedules two appointments an hour and fits in walk-ins during those times. Martin encouraged patience for everyone involved, especially on busy days. Fortunately, the program was able to get a Google phone number to increase their voicemail capacity, but issues persist amid the frenzy to file.

"I have students who only work 15 hours a week who are the ones who are clearing it out," Martin said. "We have a 300 voicemail backlog. We do try to get back to everybody. It just takes a while."

The program started with Allegheny Professor Janine Sickafuse, who would train four or five students each spring to prepare taxes by hand at Active Aging in association with AARP. Later on, Martin was out with folks from the college's civic engagement department, and before too long, she was in charge of the program, doing hundreds of returns every spring semester. The partnership with the library started in 2011, but VITA still does taxes at Active Aging on Thursdays by appointment.

Last year's library fire impacted the number of tax returns VITA was able to file, although they and the library were determined to continue the partnership in the meantime. The program moved to Foundry CoWork across the street, which was overwhelmed by the flurry of activity, and VITA transitioned to Pelletier Library on Allegheny's campus. Finally, Meadville Public Library opened its temporary location, the Twig, and was ready for VITA to return.

"Three days after the fire they were were in touch with me, saying we were getting a temporary location, and (we'll) get you moved in," Martin said. "We really value the partnership, and they do as well. It’s great. Their tech people provide support for us, which is very nice."

While the students involved either receive college credit or count the program as a work-study job, Martin is watching for more than accurate tax filings.

"I actually study (the students) as part of my research," Martin said. "I’m really interested in civic learning outcomes and how the college and our programs can enhance that for our graduates."

Martin gives them surveys prior to working with the program and at the end of the tax season and short reflection assignments throughout. She analyzes the surveys and codes for themes that emerge through the reflection papers.

"All of them report significant changes in how they thought about Meadville and the community," Martin said. "Some of them report their views on social policy and even being transformed."

Senior managerial economics major David Perez, a second-year student with the VITA program, initially took the class as a way to amass credits. He came back as a site coordinator with a new perspective.

"Now that I’m doing it for the second year, I think working with these people is very humbling," Perez said. "It’s definitely something that I would do for free. The people that come in and the things they talk to you about makes you sit back and appreciate your life and the things that you struggle with in your everyday life, you realize it’s nothing in comparison."

Martin shared a story of a client who had a newspaper route and was paid as a non-employee. It appeared the client would have to owe the government $1,500.

"She was having a panic attack," Martin said. "So I said, ‘Let’s look at expenses. And let’s talk about itemizing.’ Then, she ended up owing only $100, and she jumped up and gave me this monstrous hug."

Recently, Allegheny College has backed up the VITA program with funding for students, supplies and a site manager, and Martin continues to look for volunteers to greet and check in clients as they arrive.

"I love meeting new people and learning new things, so every spring that happens," Martin said. "I also want people to get the most refund that they can and not have to pay somebody else to do that. To do a simple return with just a W-2 would take 15 minutes."

Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at tdague@meadvilletribune.com.

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