AUGUSTA — In a first for the state, high school students at the Capital Area Technical Center are receiving training in tax preparation and will soon offer their services to the public for free.

The program is available to any individuals or families making less than $50,000 a year.

Students in the new Business Careers Academy at Capital Area Technical Center are offering the help through a partnership with the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

All students undergo training that includes about three weeks of classroom instruction, passing an online test and certification as volunteer tax preparers by the IRS. All income tax returns they file will be reviewed by their instructor, Ryan Wheaton.

“I’m not nervous; I feel like we’re pretty well prepared,” said Cony senior Matt Swan, who is certified at the basic level of tax preparer. “And Mr. Wheaton will be making sure we’re doing everything right. It’s kind of cool, being the pilot program. There’s no other opportunity to do something like this.”

Tess Armstrong, an IRS tax consultant, said while there are similar tax preparation assistance programs at colleges in Maine, this is the first high school program in the state. It’s also one of only a few such programs in the country, she said.

She said the high school students are well-versed in the mechanics and ethics of preparing taxes. All tax return information will be kept confidential.

“All our volunteers are beholden to a standard of ethics that is very high,” Armstrong said. “They have a good site coordinator, in Ryan (Wheaton), and there is a quality review process done before any return is electronically filed.”

The students will do both state and federal returns, and file them electronically, so taxpayers can expect their tax return in as few as 10 days, Armstrong said.

Cony senior Mariah Hazard, who is certified to complete intermediate level tax returns, said she has only done one so far: her own, since she has had two jobs and is filing taxes for the first time this year.

Students will prepare people’s taxes in February and March. Tax forms for income earned in 2011 are due to the IRS by April 17.

Armstrong said people can call 211 for information on tax preparation help statewide.

Wheaton, who holds all eight available tax preparation level certifications, said six tech center students are certified at the basic level and two are at the intermediate level.

He said returns filed by the students will be reviewed three times, at least once by him. And he said the IRS is providing liability protection to the school program — in case something goes wrong with someone’s tax return.

After conducting an initial interview with taxpayers, students will use computer software to prepare their returns.

Wheaton said students in the program will have the education to sit for an exam that would allow them to prepare tax returns professionally in the future, if they wish.

“I think I’ll do people’s taxes in college; it should be a good side job,” Hazard said. “I’m sure tons of people don’t know how to do it. And the cost to hire somebody else to do it can be pretty outrageous.”

Armstrong said there are also Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs at the University of Maine campuses at Farmington and Machias. She said the program’s focus is to help low-income taxpayers make sure they are taking all the tax credits that are available to them, such as the earned income tax credit.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

 


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