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Students help more community members with taxes

BY NINA EARNEST | FEBRUARY 17, 2011 7:20 AM

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Deb Honts expected to receive $304 in her tax return.

But a private firm wanted $308 for the filing service.

She needed the money for her large family. She needed the money for rent.

“I can’t afford $308 for this,” she said, gesturing at the tax papers in front of her.

Instead, the 54-year-old turned to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, co-hosted by Johnson County Social Services, Beta Alpha Psi — the University of Iowa accounting fraternity — and other area organizations.

“I should have come here first,” Honts said.

She was one of many families, individuals, and certified University of Iowa student volunteers occupying upstairs and downstairs rooms Wednesday night at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St.



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The program, designed to provide free tax assistance to community members who can’t afford professional filing assistance with their income taxes, has seen an increase in filers in the past few years.

“I think it’s a sign that the economy is still pretty bad for the low to middle-income earner,” said Joyce Berg, the Beta Alpha Psi faculty adviser.

Honts said she had been without work since August after losing both of her jobs. Her first experience with unemployment and subsequent job search has been difficult in the current economic situation.

“It’s a job finding a job,” Honts said.

Amy Correia, the Johnson County social-services director, said the county’s collaboration with Beta Alpha Psi students began in 2007. Since that time, program officials have worked to expand the program from primarily UI students to communities throughout Johnson County.

Berg said 32 percent of the taxpayers who participated in the program last year received earned income credit. The percentage represents a shift from the 2006 level, when a large number of filers were students.

“[The program’s] grown substantially, really as a result of this partnership,” Berg said.

Correia said the program grew from 360 households in 2007 to over 1,000 in 2010. Money returned from the 2008 tax year topped $1.2 million, and last year’s returns brought over $1.6 million in refunds to Johnson County families.

“The goal is to bring as much federal and state refunds into the hands of those that most need it,” Correia said.

Volunteers, mainly UI accounting majors or law students, must have completed a tax course in advance and undergo Internal Revenue Service training.

“This is something that they’re good at,” Berg said. “And then they have extra training so they can be accurate when they file the tax return.”

Wei Jiang, a senior finance and accounting major, said he volunteered last year and wanted to continue helping.

“I’m making a difference and saving money for others,” the 26-year-old said.

Bijou Maliabo, carrying her sleeping 3-year old daughter, said the students make the process easier.

“Any question they have, they answer,” Maliabo said.

And Honts said the students and supervisor make sure to double-check all the data to make sure filers get as much from their return as possible.

Honts said she looks forward to the end of her rough year.

“It’ll get better,” she said.


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