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Students assist tax filing

Becky Hogan | Tuesday, February 12, 2008

As the April 15 deadline for filing income taxes looms, students in the Tax Assistance Program are helping members of the local community prepare tax returns as part of a two-credit course.

The program provides free tax-preparing services of federal and state income taxes for any individual or family with a combined income of less than $38,000.

The Tax Assistance program “gets students involved in the real world, applying what they are learning in the classroom to real help for real people,” course professor Ken Milani said.

Beginning Feb. 9 and continuing through the tax season, 90 students will spend three hours a week at one of nine designated centers in the South Bend-Mishawaka area. These centers include the Mishawaka Public Library and the South Bend Public Library as well as on-campus locations such as LaFortune Student Center and the Center for Social Concerns. The program extends beyond the area at another site in Plymouth, Ind.

Assistance is also available for students and staff who have tax returns that meet the income requirement.

Accountancy majors who have taken a federal tax class are eligible to participate in the Tax Assistance Program, and some students like senior Kevin Manning and Masters of Accountancy student Tricia DeGroot will be participating in the program for a second semester.

“It just makes you feel good because you know that these people can’t afford to have their tax returns done by anyone else,” Manning said.

The Tax Assistance Program was started in 1972 by a law student and an MBA student, and Milani has been instructing the course ever since.

“The program started with one center and half a dozen students,” Milani said. “Now, there are 10 locations and 90 students … It has changed quite a bit, but we still have competent, committed and concerned students helping taxpayers.”

During the first four weeks of the semester, the class meets twice a week for instruction with Milani. The students learn about scenarios they could meet when they prepare tax returns at local centers.

“We go through different situations we might face with people in the area and do some practice returns,” Manning said.

According to Milani, the program’s students began work last Saturday in teams of two at various locations.

“It’s great to be able to offer services to the South Bend community, especially the fact that it’s done through a class that is organized … you’re well-trained and that makes you feel more prepared,” DeGroot said.

There is also a group of seven students who will make house calls to individuals who are unable to get to the centers.

The program staffs a phone center Monday through Friday to answer questions about the service.

“There aren’t a whole lot of phone calls, but we think it’s a really nice service for people to be able to speak with a live person,” DeGroot said.

DeGroot said one of the great features of the program is that students have some flexibility when they work at the centers during the week.

“We have center operations every day of the week except Sunday and Friday, and some in evenings and afternoons,” DeGroot said.

Students end up working at the sites about six times during the semester.

The program advertises through Notre Dame and in local newspapers and radio and television stations.

“A lot of the people that come to the sites come because they have been before,” DeGroot said.

Manning has found that the learning experience extends beyond just preparing tax returns.

“It’s a really rewarding experience to give something back to community,” Manning said. “You get to meet a lot of interesting people who have lived in South Bend their whole lives and talk to you while you’re preparing their tax return.”

A certified CPA is usually present at the major sites to handle more complicated tax returns and to assist the students.

Manning said there are usually very few errors on the student-prepared tax returns, but when an error does occur, the IRS contacts Milani. He then corrects any mistake that may have been made.

Manning said participating in the Tax Assistance Program has influenced his career plans.

“I think [the program] helped me decide that I wanted to go into the tax field,” he said. “I didn’t know for sure, but I really enjoyed doing this, so it strengthened my idea that I wanted to do something in taxes.”