Students use free service to file taxes

Some USF students are turning to a new service in Tampa for help filing their taxes.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is drawing students from USF and other Tampa schools who need assistance filling out tax forms and saving money without spending more for help.

VITA is a free tax preparation service run solely by volunteers for people who make less than $42,000 a year.

Linda Tarrago, a certified public accountant and professor at Hillsborough Community College (HCC), runs the VITA program at the HCC Dale Mabry campus.

She said she wanted to start the program, which has been running for seven years, to use her knowledge to help students.

“Students used to come in and tell me how much they were paying to get their tax returns done,” Tarrago said. “They already have limited funds, yet they would still pay someone hundreds of dollars to do them.”

Tarrago’s father worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 35 years doing corporate audits, so she grew up with accounting.

Every year, Tarrago has people help her with the preparation of taxes, including staff from HCC, accounting students from the University of Tampa and her family.

VITA is offered Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Appointments are not taken, but volunteers stay until the last person who signed in by 1 p.m. is helped.

USF students who used to turn to professional help for their taxes have increasingly been using the service, Tarrago said.

Senior Heidi Matthew said she has been filing her taxes for the last four years. The first time she filed, she had to pay someone to do it. The next year, she saw a billboard for VITA and decided to go to HCC.

“The people there are very helpful and friendly,” Matthew said. “That’s why I keep going back. I even recommended some of my friends at USF to try it.”

Because VITA is a free service, sometimes the wait can be long. This year, Matthew said, she had to wait three hours before being helped.

“It was a Saturday and there were a lot of people,” she said. “But it was different because this year they showed the movie Madagascar in the waiting room. It really helped pass the time.”

Natasha Khan, a junior majoring in management information systems, said her main worry is not having enough money to pay her bills.

“I don’t want to feel like the loser who can’t pay their bills on time,” she said.

Khan said she has been filing her own taxes for the past two years. She first heard about the VITA program in an accounting class.

This year, Khan said she saved on her filing fees and received money from her taxes. Now, she plans to use the extra cash to pay off some of her bills.

“I don’t like credit cards, so I don’t have them,” Khan said. “But I did pay a couple of months in advance for my car payments.”

Tarrago said VITA could be rewarding to both the taxpayer and the volunteer. Taxpayers have the opportunity to save on their taxes, but volunteers also receive satisfaction from helping people who are tight on money.

“It’s a high for me when people have the opportunity to go out shopping because they have a little extra money,” Tarrago said. “Helping people gives me more back than I give.”