ST. PETERSBURG — The weather was frigid, record breaking even, but the volunteers gathered in a university classroom Saturday were on a mission.
This particular morning, they were getting acquainted with computer software that would let them offer free tax-preparation services to low- and moderate-income residents in Pinellas County.
Among the more than a dozen volunteers was Brian Munoz, a student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. James Fellows, his professor, was also there. So was Harriett Chandler, who was laid off a year ago, but decided that helping others was a way to put her accounting skills to good use.
Saturday, they worked on a hypothetical return. In a few days, volunteers will begin preparing tax returns at 12 IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites stretching from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.
The program, run by the Pinellas County Wealth Building Coalition, in partnership with the IRS, is offered to households with incomes of less than $49,000. This filing season, the coalition is making an intensified effort to let taxpayers know about the free service.
"We're trying to get word out to people who may have lost a job and are now eligible for credits they didn't know about. As well, many people can't afford to pay for tax-prep service this year, but don't know there are free sites available to assist," said Wealth Building Coalition director Cherin Stover.
Additionally, she said, "We're encouraging people to become part of mainstream banking and take advantage of using direct deposit for a faster refund."
Stover said the organization wants taxpayers to benefit from a temporary increase in the earned income tax credit, a refundable federal income tax credit for low- to moderate-income working people. The credit has been temporarily increased under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, often referred to as the economic stimulus package. For low-income taxpayers with three or more children, this could mean a credit of as much as $5,657.
An estimated 60 percent of Pinellas County workers qualify for the earned income tax credit, but few claim it, Stover said, adding that volunteers are trained to make sure taxpayers receive the benefits.
Fellows, the USF St. Petersburg professor, is committed to the program. Over the past five years, he has encouraged his students to volunteer. Some students work as interns, receiving three hours of college credit for their work.
"I think it is great practical application for them … but they like to help out the community, as well," said Fellows, an accounting professor in the College of Business.
This year, 18 students are volunteering as interns. A dozen more are doing so without academic credit.
The USF students and other volunteers must complete rigorous online IRS courses and pass exams before they can become tax preparers. They also must take a software class, like the one offered Saturday.
Chelsea Sharma, 22, who is working on a master's in business administration and hopes to become a CPA, took more than the required IRS courses for her stint as an intern. Sharma said she decided to take the additional courses, including how to prepare taxes for military and international taxpayers, to be sure she could help everyone.
Munoz, 21, plans to become a CPA and said he hopes to work for either the IRS or the military. He put in three eight-hour days to complete the IRS online course. Like Sharma, he said volunteering is beneficial on several levels.
"The main thing is I want to get some experience working with people and interacting with them … and at the same time, I'm going to offer a free service," he said.
Lori Sheldon, 28, is one of many nonstudent volunteers. As an executive assistant at the GRAYDI Neighborhood Family Center in Largo — one of the tax-preparation sites — she has seen the demand for the free service.
"We were short-staffed last year and we needed an extra person or two, so I decided to volunteer," she said.
Chandler, 64, who was laid off from a social service agency a year ago, thought it would be good to volunteer. She will work at the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce site in St. Pete Beach. The site was opened to serve mostly low-income staff at beach hotels, Stover said.
"We want to reach people wherever they are," she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.