By Spencer Curcillo
Benjamin Franklin believed that two things were certain in life: death and taxes. Youngstown State University’s Williamson College of Business Administration is attempting to make the latter a less difficult experience for people through their participation in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.
The VITA program is sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service and seeks to provide tax assistance by offering free training to volunteers hoping to be tax preparers.
WCBA’s VITA branch is one of the busiest of the several in the Mahoning Valley region. It is estimated to have aided between 700-1000 people file taxes in each of the last two tax seasons.
Sharon Wathen, professor of accounting and finance at YSU, works as a volunteer tax reviewer for YSU’s branch. Wathen said she believes the program is a great resource for students and members of the community.
“It’s a free service to the community,” Wathen said. “Particularly for people who are filing for the first time or don’t have a relationship with a tax preparer. It’s an opportunity for free tax preparation; it’s a great resource.”
Most of the volunteers who serve at the WCBA branch are students at YSU. Raymond Shaffer, chair of the accounting and finance department, is the coordinator for the Williamson location and has used the program as an opportunity to help both volunteers and tax payers. He has created a course for student volunteers to enroll in, during which they complete the training offered by the IRS. They receive class credit as well, similar to an internship. Shaffer views it as a “win-win” situation.
Shaffer also said he believes the volunteer experience provides an opportunity for students to see the real world results of what they learn in their courses.
“The learning is practical,” Shaffer said. “This supplements for the students the theoretical class they take in our curriculum. … The students who take the required course in our curriculum, which is more theoretical, and then they do this in addition — they get to see both the theory and the practice.”
Additionally, Shaffer said the program provides volunteers invaluable experiences that can’t be simulated in the academic environment.
“The students who go through the program, in addition to learning tax knowledge, they learn how to deal with people,” Shaffer said. “You’re dealing now with real people and real tax returns, real dollars for them. You’re dealing with their lives. We hear stories about a spouse who just died. We hear stories about people not having enough money to pay rent, so we really get into their day-to-day lives, and that’s something you cannot replicate in a class or in a textbook.”
Shaffer said he believes that the student volunteers who serve at the WCBA location, having completed comprehensive training from the IRS, are every bit as qualified as preparers out in the community.
“This is more rigorous training than paid preparers outside the university have to do,” Shaffer said. “There are no certification tests for paid preparers. Anybody, literally, can say they’re a tax preparer, and they can go out and do tax returns for people, charge them as a paid preparer, and not have to do any of the certifications we do.”
That said, Shaffer still recognizes the possibility for human error and has been sure to establish a system of checks to ensure maximum accuracy.
“When we do prepare taxes, there are several levels of review,” Shaffer said. “Students generally work in teams. They work on the tax return. They complete it and check each other while they’re doing it. Then somebody else, myself or Mrs. Wathen review it, so it gets at least two levels of review before any tax return ever leaves.”
Wathen believes that Williamson’s branch of the VITA program has been an overall positive experience for all involved.
“There are many students who return after they graduate to volunteer,” Wathen said. “I believe that they do that because they really enjoy working with Dr. Shaffer on this particular project. He has a wonderful attitude and makes it really a positive experience for the volunteers as well as the tax payers coming in.”
Any members of the community wishing to use the VITA service at the WCBA location are welcome to attend walk-in appointments on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The program runs until April 11, and is not open March 14 or 18.
Community members must bring proper paperwork with them and should be aware that walk-in appointments generally fill up fast and they may not be seen if they show up late in the day.