RBS students, alumni donate time and effort to help with Newark Now tax-assistance program

Inside a room on the third floor of the Rutgers Business School’s headquarters in Newark recently, Robert Kierzkowski sat across a folding table from a local resident and entered the man’s tax information into a laptop computer.

“Are you a tenant? Do you pay rent?” the Rutgers junior asked. A short time later, Kierzkowski handed the man a purple folder with his completed federal and state tax returns, all done for free.

“Great,” the man said, shaking Kierzkowski’s hand. “Thanks for your help.”

The same scenario is being repeated hundreds of times at half a dozen locations around Newark, as students from Rutgers Business School and other volunteers help prepare taxes for low-income taxpayers as part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

Newark Now, the community group that operates the program locally, anticipates completing as many as 4,000 free tax returns for families and individuals this tax season, almost 1,000 more than last year. And Jeremy Guenter, VITA program director for Newark Now, said Rutgers students have played a big role.

“We wouldn’t be able to do the level of the program we’re doing if we didn’t have so many volunteers and interns from Rutgers,” Guenter said. “Rutgers students have been outstanding. They understand tax accounting and they pick it up quick.”

Of the 60 or so volunteers this year, more than 40 are Rutgers students, according to Newark Now. And while Rutgers students and alumni have helped for years, this is the first year the organization and university have entered into a formal partnership, allowing students such as Kierzkowski to obtain school credit as interns.

“It gives you a good feeling,” said the 20-year-old finance and accounting major, who volunteers about 15 hours a week. “I’m helping people, but it’s also helping me. I’m learning to do returns.”

By early March, Kierzkowski, who is a full-time student in addition to working part time, estimated he had prepared close to 100 returns for taxpayers, many of whom previously paid one of the national tax preparation companies to do their taxes.

In 2009, the VITA program operated by Newark Now saved taxpayers $600,000 in filing fees and provided assistance that generated $4.6 million in state and federal refunds, the group said.

To become eligible to participate, all the volunteers completed a 36-hour tax academy that Guenter taught last fall. They then took a certification test administered by the Internal Revenue Service, which established the VITA program in the 1960s and still oversees its operations around the country.

This year, many volunteers – including Kierzkowski – have obtained intermediate or advanced certifications, allowing them to complete more complicated tax returns with items such as capital gains, Guenter said.

“These guys don’t learn to just do a basic tax return,” he said. “They are capable.”

The Rutgers VITA site is new this year and came about largely from the work of accounting senior Christina LaRocco and Joseph Guterl, a tax accounting and business law professor at the Rutgers Business School. LaRocco, president of the Rutgers Accounting Society, said she worked with Guterl and Guenter to get the on-campus site added to ones already at Newark City Hall, Essex County College and elsewhere.

LaRocco, 22, said having a VITA site on campus encourages students to not only volunteer their time, but also to have their taxes done for free, if they qualify. Traffic at the campus location has been slower than other sites around Newark, but organizers expect more people to stop by as it becomes more known.

Like Kierzkowski, LaRocco said she benefits just as much as the clients of VITA.

“I’ve gotten to learn how to do taxes,” said LaRocco, who also works part time. “And I get to help a lot of people who can’t afford to do their own taxes.”

In addition to assisting taxpayers, LaRocco has focused on recruiting other Rutgers students to volunteer for VITA.

“That is just as valuable,” said Guenter, noting that along with the accounting society, campus chapters of Ascend and the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting also have been active in encouraging participation with VITA.

The Rutgers VITA site in the career services conference room on the third floor of 1 Washington Park is open Mondays and Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. until April 15.

- Greg Saitz

TAGS: Alumni Community Newark Students