February 26, 2001 Vol. V, No. 11

Faculty advisor Catherine Jeppson and student Saori Tate help a couple with their tax return.

Students Provide Many Good (Tax) Returns to the Needy

Annual Spring VITA/LITC Program Involving 250 Students Expects to Prepare 5,000 Free Tax Returns

In a shining example of the university's commitment to community service, hundreds of Cal State Northridge students once again are volunteering this spring in an annual university program preparing free income tax returns for thousands of low-income residents.

The university launched the first Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program in 1971, engendering scores of similar efforts at other colleges and universities around the country. Now 30 years later, officials said CSUN still runs the largest VITA program in the western United States.

What began as a fledgling CSUN effort with about 10 student volunteers at one site in the city of San Fernando has grown to a widely known, award-winning program with 14 sites in the region staffed by about 250 student volunteers. This year, CSUN's VITA/ LITC program expects to prepare about 5,000 free tax returns.

"There's a great demand in the community for our services," said Catherine Jeppson, the longtime faculty advisor to CSUN's VITA/LITC (Low Income Taxpayer Clinic) program. "Believe it or not, though, I think our students get even more out of the program than the people they're helping."

"The program is very well-known in the business community, and it looks very good on a resume," Jeppson said. "But it's really an opportunity for students to give something back to the community. And for some, it's a real eye-opener as to what is the make-up of a typical family in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley."

To qualify for services by CSUN's VITA program, clients must have annual gross incomes not exceeding $40,000, whether for single or married joint filers. Many clients are non-English speaking, so the VITA program also offers services in Spanish, Korean, Farsi, Russian and sign language.

The 14 current CSUN VITA sites opened in mid-February and most will remain open through early April, with the final sites closing April 6. Most locations are scattered throughout the San Fernando Valley, although the program also has expanded to sites in the Koreatown and Fairfax areas.

Staffed by CSUN student volunteers, each individual VITA site typically is open the same single day each week for a two-and-a-half-hour period. That is the length of the students' weekly shift. But some VITA site is open each day Monday through Saturday covering both the day and evening periods.

Demand at some of the CSUN VITA sites can be so strong that clients sometimes are asked to come back the next week or try another VITA site on another day. "It's first-come, first-served. Anyone who calls in, we tell them to get to their VITA site early," Jeppson said.

After undergoing an intense 24-hour training period during semester break, the CSUN VITA student volunteers work a single shift every week for the eight-week run of the program. The students are supervised by second-year CSUN student coordinators, as well as by professionals who volunteer their time.

Under the program's agreements with the Internal Revenue Service and state Franchise Tax Board, the CSUN student volunteers prepare standard, current-year California and federal tax forms such as federal 1040s, 1040As, 1040EZs and various credits, and California 540As, 540EZs and renter's credits.

For couples filing married joint returns, both spouses must be present for VITA to prepare the returns. The program does not prepare returns for married couples filing separate returns. Specialized services are provided for senior citizens and individuals with disabilities.

Students in the CSUN VITA program do not handle prior years returns, out-of-state-returns, capital gains forms or self-employment income. "What we do, we do very well," said Jeppson. "But we don't want to do things where a paid tax preparer would better serve the taxpayer."

The program is housed in CSUN's College of Business Administration and Economics, and Jeppson is a lecturer in the college's Accounting and MIS Department. But the VITA program is open as a two- or three-unit service learning course to all CSUN sophomores and above in good academic standing.

"When I found out about the program, that you can earn college credit for it and really get out there in the community and do something good and help people, that's what attracted me," said Dina Levkov, a CSUN VITA student coordinator this spring who worked as a tax preparer last year.

"I think I have a really good understanding of how our tax system works, and I don't think a lot of people who don't go through this program can say that," Levkov added. "You really learn a lot in the 24-hour training period. Of all the classes I take, that's one of the classes where I learn the most."

Levkov said she has had fun in the program, met a lot of interesting clients and often shares in their excitement. "Sometimes you have people who still owe money. But sometimes you have people who get a refund. That happens pretty often. And they're really happy about it, so you get happy about it."

CSUN's VITA program was founded in 1971 by Joe Buchwald, a veteran Finance, Real Estate and Insurance Department professor, and then-student Gary Iskowitz, who went on to graduate from the university and now works as a tax attorney in Century City. Jeppson said Iskowitz still helps support the program.

Through the years, the CSUN VITA program has received many awards and recognitions, including a presidential award from former President George Bush, the Hammer Award from former Vice President Al Gore, the Commissioner's Award from the Commissioner of the IRS, and recognition from the Los Angeles City Council and the California State Senate, among others.

"It all started at CSUN, and now it's sort of mushroomed," Jeppson said. "VITA is all over the United States, not only at universities, but also at graduate schools, law schools and community colleges. CSUN graduates, for instance, founded a new VITA program at the University of Southern California's law school.

Because the CSUN VITA program has been in operation for an amazing three decades, Jeppson said it has become a virtual institution in some communities, particularly at the program's very first Santa Rosa Center location on Kalisher Street in the city of San Fernando.

In the program's early days, local residents, many undocumented, were hesitant to seek assistance mistakenly fearing they might be reported to immigration authorities. Today, Jeppson said the Santa Rosa Center is probably the busiest single location, where generations of families come each spring.

The CSUN VITA program also runs a site on the CSUN campus-one that draws many university employees-in Business Building 2111 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through April 4. The CSUN site also is the only CSUN VITA location that currently offers electronic tax filing (also free).

The full list of CSUN VITA locations and their hours of operation is available on the program's web site, www.csun.edu/vita; by calling VITA at (818) 677-4519, or by e-mail to hfact007@csun.edu. The web site also has information for CSUN students who want to consider participating in the program.

Client Guidelines:Student Guidelines:
- Gross income not greater than $40,000 (before adjustments, exemptions, and the standard deduction)
- No self-employment income (Form 1099-MISC)
- No capital gains (except capital gain distributions on Form 1099-DIV)
- Current year returns only
- No out-of-state returns
- Be enrolled at CSUN during the spring semester in ACCT 498
- Have at least sophomore standing (min. 30 college units completed by start of the spring semester)
- Not on academic probation
- Attend all training sessions and workshops
- Work three hours per week while centers operate (February through April each spring)

@csun | February 26, 2001 issue
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