TAMPA — An accounting professor, two University of Tampa accounting students and a client sat around a tax return Saturday morning at Hillsborough Community College’s Dale Mabry Campus.
The group combed over every number, spelling and scenario on every piece of paper that the client, Tampa’s Yovanny Pereya, brought to the event: United Way Suncoast’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Taxathon.
Pereya, a teacher’s assistant at a local middle school, participated in the program for the first time. She said couldn’t have been more pleased with the hospitality and professionalism, and with the fact that it was free.
“Normally I do my return myself,” said Pereya, who got word of the program (for households making $74,000 or less) through a Hillsborough County schools email. “Sometimes it gets a little confusing with some of the information that changes on the forms and with things that change in your life. This year I felt like I needed somebody else to do it for me because I was thinking maybe I might miss something and I might be losing money.”
Serving The Community In Multiple Ways
VITA has proven to be one of the most valuable initiatives offered by United Way Suncoast. Eligible community members save, on average, $240 because of the free service, and volunteers take only about 60 minutes to prepare most tax returns. But that’s just one benefit. The community enjoys an economic boost because of the millions of tax return and earned income credit tax dollars returned to the community, and volunteers gain a sense of fulfillment by lending their assistance.
For University of Tampa accounting students Gail Kooser and Shea O’Rourke, VITA provides academic support. They enthusiastically served Pereya on Saturday as part of their volunteer requirement to earn their degrees.
“Working with (VITA) is one of the most useful experiences you can get out of the accounting degree,” said O’Rourke, who like all the 75 volunteers on Saturday went through 20 hours of IRS training to get certified. “It’s hands on. It’s client facing. It’s an important experience for us to have.”
Kooser said, “It’s not just reading a textbook. It’s real life.”
VITA services to run through April
It’s also the type of experience that played out in 190 completed client tax returns from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The number proved to be a record, despite the Monster Jam traffic across the street at Raymond James Stadium.
Ultimately, the 190 total was 40 percent higher than last year’s event. It serves as a great sign for such events moving forward, including the Sarasota Taxathon. It’s scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Feb. 11 at the United Way Suncoast office in Sarasota (1800 2nd St., Suite 102). United Way Suncoast welcomes appointments, but also welcomes walk-ins.
Overall, the VITA services will continue through Tax Day, which falls on April 18 this year. More than 10,000 clients in the five-county United Way Suncoast area (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto) will be served by at 44 VITA sites.
Getting it done, getting it right
Accuracy is not an issue for VITA. It has a 96 percent accuracy rate nationwide. It helps to have thoroughly trained volunteers. And IRS employees or highly experienced volunteers often sign off on every return. One such volunteer: HCC professor of accounting Linda Tarrago, who was double-checking Pereya’s return with Kooser and O’Rourke.
“I started years ago helping my students because they were paying too much for their tax returns,” said Tarrago, in her fifth year of working at the taxathon and a few months from retiring. “Now I plan to keep helping people with their taxes for years to come. It makes me feel good to help others. I love to give back to the community.”
In two years, VITA has brought back more than $20 million in tax returns and earned income tax credits. Most sites also offer additional services such as financial coaching, legal assistance, housing assistance and access to low-fee BankOn accounts for the unbanked and the underbanked.
In some instances, they have helped community members gain greater tax returns than previously realized. In 2022, a Sarasota resident came to VITA after realizing he could no longer afford to pay a preparer. Not only did he save on the fee charge, but the VITA volunteer discovered an error. The previous preparer had claimed only two of Stephen’s three children. Fortunately, the volunteers filed amendments o help him claim the additional credits that were due to him.
Community members can find a list of VITA sites, make appointments, and get a needed list of documents at uwsvita.org. Or they can call 1-800-UWS-VITA.