The Cal Poly Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program is providing free tax-return-preparation assistance in an effort to aid underprivileged communities in the San Luis Obispo community.
As part of the VITA Senior Project class (BUS 416), more than 125 business administration students host VITA clinics every Saturday. The Winter clinics started Feb. 2 and will end March 16. Through the program, students get hands-on experience by interacting with clients and preparing tax return forms.
VITA is sanctioned and coordinated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and California Franchise Tax Board. The students are IRS-certified prior to preparing the tax returns.
The tax clinic is completely free and no appointment is necessary, which is, according to business administration senior Christine Nunez, what sets the program apart from other tax preparation services.
“A lot of people do their taxes through TurboTax or through certain companies like H&R Block where you have to pay,” Nunez said. “It’s a really nice program that we can offer the community.”
When a client arrives at the tax clinic, they are welcomed by student greeters who hand out three forms. After filling out those forms, the client is taken to an interview in which other students ask about the tax-related documents. In order to be accepted to participate in the tax clinic, the client is required to have their Social Security Card, government issued identification, 2017 tax returns and 2018 tax-related documents. Once a client is cleared, another set of students meet the client and prepare the tax returns.
Five weeks into the VITA program this year, students have filed 350 tax returns. Nunez said this experience has helped her put her tax knowledge to use.
“The reason why [VITA] is so important is because no one really teaches students how to do taxes themselves,” Nunez said. “This experience has given me the opportunity to learn about the importance of filing my taxes, understanding where my wages go and why taxes are taken out of my salary.”
The students are responsible for preparing the tax return forms. Faculty and volunteer certified public accountants (CPAs) review the tax returns before submitting them to be filed.
Total Federal Tax Returns Prepared
Business administration senior Marcos Diaz said that, to him, tax is a broad subject that is constantly changing with tax laws. He said that he has learned something new every Saturday with VITA.
“You have to adapt to [tax laws] and you learn new things every day,” Diaz said.
Nunez said her favorite part about VITA is being able to help people who come from lower-income backgrounds.
“Being able to say that [a client] gets a $3,000 refund, which will come in three to five weeks, is a great feeling,” Nunez said. “That’s a huge sum of money that they could put to good use for whatever they need.”
Students also staffed two other VITA clinics at Allan Hancock College Community Education Center in Santa Maria and Lucia Mar Education School in Oceano.
The Cal Poly clinic is held on the third floor of the Business Building (Building 3) from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The last clinic of 2019 will be held on March 16.
Another student-ran tax program, the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) also provides hands-on experience for students and help for the community.
The program staff is smaller than that of VITA and only accepts about 15 to 18 students per quarter. It’s goal is to help low-income taxpayers in the community resolve issues with the IRS and understand their rights and responsibilities as taxpayers.
In Fall 2018, the LITC had 28 active clients, closed 10 cases and had $85,435 of liabilities reduced. In all of 2018, VITA accepted 59 new clients total.
They worked 91 total cases, 19 court cases and conducted 56 one-on-one consultations, according to their 2018 end of year report.
According to the report, they reduced client liabilities by a total of $430,000 and obtained a total of $27,000 in refunds for clients. The program recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to continually grow their program and community outreach.
Lauryn Luescher contributed to this story.