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Many happy returns: Union celebrates 10 years of tax partnership


Click image to enlarge:
Emily Rider '14, is one of the student volunteers who helps prepare tax returns for area residents. (Photos by Matt Milless)Rich Harris '14, speaks with a client about his tax return on a recent weeknight at the Kenney Community Center. Mary O'Keeffe, economics professor, oversees Union's VITA program.Patrick May '15  helps a client with his tax return as part of the Volunteer Income tax Assistance (VITA)  program.
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Mary O’Keeffe stopped at a local food place recently for a snack.

“I know you,” the man behind the counter told O’Keeffe, who teaches economics at Union. “Your students used to do my taxes.”

After some small talk, the man called another worker over to meet O’Keeffe.

“You should go to Union to have them do your taxes for free,” said the man. “So then you can save your money, and some day you can be a small business owner like me!”

The business owner is among more than 2,000 people who have had their tax returns prepared by Union students through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Now in its 10th year, the students have helped secure nearly $4 million in state and federal refunds for low-income working families and senior citizens.

The brainchild of Therese McCarty, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, the program is now overseen by O’Keeffe. In that first year, students prepared 60 simple basic returns. Today, more than 200 returns are prepared each tax season at the Kenney Community Center, which partners with the IRS, Schenectady County Department of Social Services, United Way of the Greater Capital Region and the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

These days, students also tackle more complex returns, with itemized deductions, various types of pension income, cancellation of debt income, and capital gains and losses.

“A conservative estimate of the amount of tax preparer fees saved by clients is a half-million dollars,” said O’Keeffe. The nine volunteer student tax preparers are all enrolled in O’Keeffe’s class, “Income Tax Policy and Practice.” They must complete IRS training and pass an exam before working with taxpayers.

And for the first time, the students are all IRS certified at the advanced level, moving up from the basic level. The students are Emily Zangrillo ‘14, Emily Rider ‘14, Kelly Sheehan ‘14, Marissa Vollmer ‘14, Rich Harris ‘14, Leandra Falotico ‘14, Patrick May ‘15, Jiyang Zhou ‘15 and Phil Gluck ‘15.

O’Keeffe has also strengthened her credentials. Last summer, she passed a rigorous set of IRS exams for the designation of “enrolled agent.” In addition to supervising Union’s VITA site, O’Keeffe will teach a class for other VITA site coordinators and assist with quality reviews at those sites.

Also, the Union volunteers are joined this season by a third-year student from Albany Law School, Erica Rickards.

“She brings her experience working in Albany Law’s Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic and has been a great asset to our program,” O’Keeffe said.

When the program wraps up next week, students may share their experiences with an Economics of Poverty group O’Keeffe is facilitating with Ellen Foster, lecturer in economics.

Since it began 10 years ago, the program has attracted many returning taxpayers. But some, like the business owner who recognized O’Keeffe, move on. That suits O’Keeffe just fine.

“Some of our taxpayers from our early years have happily outgrown our income limitations,” she said.

Volunteers are available Monday from 3 to 9 p.m. and Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. through March 5. For more information, call 388-6652.