Reflecting the Wisconsin Idea: Center helps Madison-area residents complete tax paperwork

Classes are done for the day at Emerson Elementary School, but a few parents — with their children in tow — head back into the building.

Clutching manila envelopes filled with W-2s, 1040s and other tax forms, they enter into the bright fluorescent light that spills from the rooms in the 1920s-era school on Madison’s east side.

Image: A volunteer helps with tax returns.

Working from a computer in the principal’s office at Emerson Elementary School, junior Jillian Picciolo prepares an online income tax filing for Madison residents Maria and Brian Culligan. Picciolo is one of hundreds of volunteers trained by UW–Madison’s Puelicher Center for Banking Education to assist people with their income taxes. Photo: Jeff Miller

Behind a desk in the school’s main office, UW–Madison junior Jillian Picciolo looks over the papers brought by one couple, pausing to ask them questions as she enters their information into an online tax form.

Picciolo is one of about 40 students, most of them undergraduates from UW–Madison and Madison College, who are volunteering this tax season to help Madison-area residents through a service offered by UW–Madison’s Puelicher Center for Banking Education.

Since the program was launched six years ago, its volunteers have helped more than 21,000 people complete their tax forms for free or reduced fees. The service is available to those who earned less than $49,000 in 2009 and is offered at several businesses and credit unions, in addition to parents of students at Emerson School.

This year, the tax-preparation volunteers will work with more than 500 clients in the Madison area.

Seeing the immediate reward of financial knowledge in terms of tax savings serves to reinforce the benefits of financial literacy for those who use our tax service.

— Jim Johannes

With the program’s help, people earning $8 an hour have seen their take-home incomes rise an average of 3 percent because of credits and other advantages they may have missed in the past, says John Hoffmire, director of the Center on Business and Poverty, which is part of the Puelicher Center.

For many families, tax time is when there’s extra money on hand, meaning it’s a good time to get them thinking about saving for retirement, their children’s educations or other life goals, Hoffmire says.

While some do put it toward paying off debt, “for the people who do have some resources, the choice they make about whether to go to a big box place and get a huge-screen TV compared with actually putting money in their 401k plan, that’s a choice that really determines people’s financial futures,” Hoffmire says. “If they put their refunds into a 401k and it’s matched by their employer, they’re getting a double effect. They’re saving themselves but also they’re allowing their employer to help them.”

In addition, the center has also helped launch 25 businesses — many of them in the Milwaukee area — and helped create financial literacy training programs for more than 80 credit unions.

“Getting out in the community to provide a value-added service like this is a great way to demonstrate to our students the role they can play to shape the future as good citizens,” says Mike Knetter, dean of the Wisconsin School of Business, which houses the center.

Emerson principal Karen Kepler said she’s tried to find ways to better connect the school with the community, and she sees this as another way of helping families whose children attend the school. Eventually, she and the program would like to see the tax-preparation services branch off to nearby East High School, where parents could get help completing financial aid applications for college in addition to tax assistance, she says.

Companies that offer the services say they benefit in a number of ways, including by enhancing retention, improving morale and productivity among workers, offering better customer service and attracting better talent.

“It saves employees from paying a lot more than what’s necessary to have their taxes done,” says Kevin Henry, chief financial officer for Food Fight Inc., which runs 11 restaurants in the Madison area and whose employees work with the center’s volunteers on their taxes. Because Food Fight offers the service, “we probably look better in the eyes of our employees, because it’s another benefit they’re able to use. This one’s completely free to them and it definitely helps a lot of them.”

The center’s services are also a better option for most than some tax-preparation offerings or refund anticipation loans, which can cost a big chunk of an expected refund, Hoffmire says.

“Seeing the immediate reward of financial knowledge in terms of tax savings serves to reinforce the benefits of financial literacy for those who use our tax service,” says Jim Johannes, director of the Puelicher Center.

Tax help prepares students

The tax-preparation services also provide a valuable training exercise for students, many of whom will go on to careers in accounting or to regularly work with clients.

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-January, about 15 students from UW–Madison and Madison College are settled in behind desktop computers for three hours of training in the tax-preparation software they’ll be using for clients during the upcoming tax season.

Before they even got to the first box on the 1040, William Padley, an accountant and instructor at the technical college, walked them through some of the basics of working with clients: Introduce yourself, shake the clients’ hands, but don’t tell them you’re nervous because this is the first time you’ve done someone’s taxes.

“When you start doing tax returns, you’re going to be nervous. Is anybody here nervous?” Padley asks.

A few hands go up.

“Of course you are,” he reassures them. “If you aren’t, you’re not human. Don’t panic. I get nervous when I see my first client for the year. It takes some practice, but you’ll build some confidence.”

About 50 volunteers were trained, and they committed to working at least three four-hour shifts during the tax season, says Paul Hammeke, coordinator for the tax-preparation program.

“A lot of them maybe want to learn more about taxes, and this is a really good way to do it,” Hammeke says of the student volunteers. “A lot also generally want to help people and assist them in getting all the credits they can receive.”

At Emerson School, Picciolo is in her second day of helping clients do their taxes. The accounting, risk management and insurance major expects that tax season will play an important part in her eventual career, and finds it a good way to help others while getting experience.

“It always feels good to relieve the stress a little bit for someone else,” Picciolo says.

As Picciolo takes information off Maria and Brian Culligan’s tax documents, the Culligans’ elementary-school daughter is on the floor, coloring with markers as Kepler offers her a cookie, and their 6-month-old daughter is quietly — and patiently — perched in Brian Culligan’s arms.

Brian Culligan says he usually does the family’s taxes using tax-preparation software, but with their new child and some other first-time circumstances this tax season, he and Maria thought they’d benefit from asking some questions of someone more experienced.

“The biggest thing is that knowing that when we file our taxes we’re not going to wonder if we made any mistakes,” Brian Culligan says. “When you do it yourself…you’re never going to be sure if you miss something…or maybe there’s something we’re just not aware of and they’ll say, ‘You qualify for this.’”

For more information about the program, visit the Center on Business and Poverty.

Written by Stacy Forster