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JCP: Milligan tax assist sharpens its pencils

This article originally appeared in the Johnson City Press on Jan. 14, 2015.

By Tony Casey
Press Staff Writer
tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com

A crew of ‍Milligan College students is gearing up to make tax season a little less … taxing.

Year after year, ‍Milligan professor Harold Branstrator is shocked to hear how many people in the area pay as much as $500 to have their taxes processed.

Branstrator will lead ‍Milligan‍’‍s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program into its seventh year when it begins Feb. 2. It carries on until the end of tax season on April 15.

As it did last year, ‍Milligan‍’‍s VITA program is partnered with Appalachian Community Federal Credit Union in deliver this free alternative tax service to people with annual incomes of less than $60,000; people with physical disabilities, non-English-speaking citizens and people older than 55 years of age. With six years completed, Branstrator has seen the free program go from a service that helped process 35 returns in its first year to 835 in 2014.

“We did 835 last year. That’s almost a like a professional site,” he said. That’s a figure of approximately $200,000 in savings in comparison to if clients had gone to a fee-based service.

“Some of these people, even after seven years, don’t know that we do them for free,” Branstrator said.

Milligan students will go through training under their professor to handle the workload and process taxes. They get so good, in fact, Branstrator said he’s gotten calls from “the big three” to poach some of his trainees. Where the students started as not being paid to get college credit, he said they get to decide if they want to do it for income during tax season.

Branstrator and his students use high-end software to help out the clients. The accessibility of the software also allows the financial team an option to call an emergency call desk number, in case any problems should arise.

A common problem, Branstrator said, is not necessarily the fault of the tax preparers, but of the system not immediatelyrecognizingchanges made in the online work. After a call, and a bit of prodding, the changes get recognized and the process carries on.

“There’s occasionally a problem, but we have a low error rate,” he said.

Expecting to serve 1,000 clients in the few months of tax season 2015, Branstrator expects to continue growing the program with more sites — perhaps at churches and other non-profits. Working with ACFCU allows Branstrator to profess outside of the classroom. He said if he feels the clients are receptive to his expertise, he will counsel on how to make sound money decisions.

Having ACFCU as a partner allows Branstrator’s team to have the clients — if they need one — to immediately sign up for a checking account that will serve as a destination for af tax refund.

Branstrator often finds a client who will use their tax return money to repay a payday loan, to whom he’s able to recommend better options for loans.

As tempting as it is for clients spend their entire return on something, perhaps, indulgent, Branstrator might agree, to a certain extent. He tells people, if they must, to spend only a part of their return on something like that, but to put the big portion of a return to things like back bills or even to pay ahead on car and housing payments.

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MILLIGAN UNIVERSITY is a Christian liberal arts university in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The university offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs.  To learn more about Milligan University, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.

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