UGA student-volunteers help rural Georgians file taxes, get bigger refunds

By for CAES News

For more than a decade, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offered through the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) Department of Financial Planning, Housing and Consumer Economics has offered free tax help to Georgians with low-to-moderate incomes, persons with disabilities, the elderly and limited-English-speaking taxpayers.

In 2017, with help from UGA Cooperative Extension, the program expanded to offer online services to reach eligible taxpayers in more rural areas of Georgia.

Joan Koonce, UGA Extension financial planning specialist, is looking forward to watching the program grow again this year after watching the progress of the online program with UGA Extension. The program began in 2017 with agents from southwest Georgia and now includes agents from all four districts.

“We only did it a few days each week for one month in the first year,” Koonce said. “We saw what worked well and what didn’t work well. Really, we had greater demand than we could actually keep up with.”

To develop the online program, Koonce worked with Lance Palmer, financial planning professor and director of VITA for UGA, and Andrea Scarrow, director of UGA Extension’s Southwest District, who was the district’s FACS program development coordinator at that time.

“I wanted to expand as much as we possibly could to serve as many people as possible,” said Koonce, adding that agents completed 115 tax returns in 2017. With the help of numerous county Extension agents, taxpayers from every district in Georgia received assistance in 2018 and the service more than doubled the number of tax returns completed to 387.

Like last year, the service will be offered throughout the tax season, from Feb. 1 through April 12, when taxpayers from districts all over Georgia will be able to go to select county Extension offices to meet with county agents who conduct a brief interview and gather the required documents. Afterward, the county agents return the required documents to Koonce using an encrypted email service and an email set up specifically for the program.

Students on UGA’s Athens campus prepare the tax returns early each week, then hold virtual meetings with individual taxpayers later in the week to discuss the returns.

“The students are a big part of this,” Koonce said. “It’s a lot of work, but it is so rewarding.”

The service benefits both Georgia taxpayers and UGA undergraduate and graduate students, who gain real-world training in addition to the course credit they earn for their participation.

“We have a lot of elderly people who are in the southwest and southeast districts who have retirement income and all kinds of tax-related things going on,” Koonce said. “So the students get to really learn about a variety of tax situations.”

She estimates VITA saves each taxpayer served an average of $300.

But perhaps the greatest return is captured in what Koonce says motivates her, and many others, to contribute their time and their efforts to this program. “I enjoy helping people,” she said.

The UGA Extension offices in the following counties participate in the Vita program:  Appling County, Bibb County, Clayton County, Crisp County, Colquitt County, Dougherty County, Elbert County, Lincoln County, Morgan County, Oconee County, Quitman County, Richmond County, Spalding County, Sumter County, Tattnall County, Tift County, Washington County and Wilkes County. To find out whether the UGA Extension office nearest you participates, call 1-800-ASK-UGA1.

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