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Every other week Harrisonburg residents can pick up their tax returns from the COB building.

In a time of universal distress, many have suffered through a year of unemployment or income loss. In Harrisonburg, some residents who qualified for stimulus checks didn’t receive them. Nancy Nichols, a JMU tax professor and VITA site coordinator said that with tax season approaching, those same people have to file a tax return even if they had zero income this past year. 

Regardless of the pandemic, receiving taxs services can be expensive which is why JMU has the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

In previous years, accounting graduate students have met with Harrisonburg residents who make less than $65,000 annually and prepared their tax returns during face-to-face meetings. Bonnie Zhang, a JMU accounting graduate student, said the return would’ve gone through two levels of review that same day and the entire process would have taken around one to three hours. This year, the VITA program at JMU looks a bit different.

“I think the biggest change would just be that we aren’t able to help out the clients as much we would like,” Zhang said. “There’s some degree of getting to know the clients in the Harrisonburg community that we’re [graduate students] missing this year.”

In order to control the number of people in the site at one time, clients must call ahead to make Friday appointments. An appointment is made every 10 minutes and a JMU tax professor goes over the client’s tax information with them and puts together a packet for the accounting graduate students. The students use these packets to prepare the returns in the classroom during the week and the client picks up their returns the following Friday.

Being unable to file tax returns in person, combined with the higher demand for tax services in Harrisonburg, said Nichols, has put the faculty and graduate students in a tight spot because, as Zhang said, they can’t help all the people who may need it this year.

Last year the American Association of Retired Persons was also offering free tax services to retired individuals. Nichols said this site isn’t open this year because it was mainly staffed by people over the age of 65 who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. Nichols said they’re swamped with phone calls because of this, and because of the number of people who’ve slipped into financial troubles. She said all appointments through the middle of March are full. 

“There definitely is a shift in the number of people who have probably fallen below that [$65,000 threshold] this year and so people who would have potentially not have qualified to come to us before, now do qualify,” Zhang said.

Nichols said part of this rising demand comes from the residents who didn’t receive their stimulus checks and haven’t had an income the entire year. 

“We’ve already done two of those tax returns this year,” Nichols said. “For people with no income and who didn’t get their stimulus payments — the only way to get it is to file a return.”

Another difference in this year’s VITA program is that there aren’t any Spanish translators to help the clients. Typically, JMU Spanish majors have joined the accounting graduate students to translate tax information for the clients. With the limited capacity of people at the site, the program had to eliminate this component. However, this year the clients found a way to break through the language barrier. 

“They [clients] bring one of their children with them, so it’s kind of interesting to have a 12-year-old translating for you about income taxes — but it works,” Nichols said.

This year’s VITA staff includes eight graduate students preparing returns, three tax faculty and another 10 College of Business faculty who help clients fill out forms. Nichols said this is a smaller number of s than in previous years. 

Nichols said that last year, the VITA program had to shut down in the middle of March because of COVID-19. She said this was upsetting for them because they were close to completing 600 returns. Last year, the Internal Revenue Service extended the due date until July 15. Nichols said that if the IRS extends the date again this year, the VITA program will offer its services for a longer period of time.

Kelsey DeMatte, an accounting graduate student working for the program, said she feels working for VITA is rewarding because she’s ing her time and effort into something that she’ll do as her career.

“I think people are benefiting from this free program because they are allowing professionals to help them get the most amount of money out of the year, when people could really use the extra,” DeMatte said.

Nichols said that she thinks they’ll be able to service somewhere between 300 to 350 clients this year.

“When you have a skill set like being good at taxes, there’s not necessarily a lot of opportunities to use that skill set as a community service,” Nichols said. “This is one opportunity we have every year for those of us who have that skill set.”

Contact Isabela Gladston at gladstia@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.