MARTY CAIVANO
TAXHELP01.JPG TAXHELP Joey Cirilo, left, a student at the University of Colorado, gets help with his taxes on Wednesday from CU business student Ben Chee, right, as part of a Tax Help Colorado program organized by the Leeds School of Business. Photo by Marty Caivano/Feb. 16, 2011

If you go

What: Tax Help Colorado, free tax prep for low-income families

When: Wednesdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 to 3 p.m. through April 9

Where: Leeds School of Business, Koelbel, room 360

More info: piton.org/TaxHelpColorado

Boulder resident and single mom, Estela Mercado, is relying on her 2011 tax refund to pay bills and put food on the table for her 18-year-old son.

“Every single cent counts right now,” Mercado said.

Mercado said the filing process is complicated, but she can’t afford to pay for help.

Instead, she turned to University of Colorado business students for help.

The Leeds School of Business is offering a free tax assistance program — Tax Help Colorado — to assist families who make less than $49,000 per year.

Thanks to the program, Mercado will recoup nearly $2,000 from her return this year, she said.

“I wish it was more, but anything will help,” Mercado said.

The CU business students will prepare basic tax forms, which are checked by community volunteers who have been trained in tax preparation. The program was offered last year too.

Jim Watkins, a Tax Help Colorado volunteer, is using his past experience as an attorney to make sure the clients are getting a full return.

“The students are very good and we rarely find mistakes,” Watkins, 63, said. “These people are really relying on their return so it’s that much more important that we get them the maximum amount.”

The free program is offered at more than 20 locations statewide, including CU (the only location in Boulder).

Census figures show that approximately 30 percent of Colorado families qualify for Tax Help Colorado, according to Piton.org, the company that funds the program.

Front Range Community College’s Boulder County campus is offering a similar program -Volunteer Income Tax Assistance – to those making less than $50,000.

During the 2010 program, CU prepared about 369 returns, resulting in more than $550,000 in refunds, said Susan Morley, accounting professor and program organizer for the CU location.

“We’ve already found over a quarter of a million dollars in refunds just in the first two weeks this year,” Morley said. “And we’re on track to double the number of returns this year.”

Morley said they’ve already seen several returning families who were happy with the last year’s service.

CU junior Sabrina Gutierrez, who also works full-time at Whole Foods, used the program last year. She said she can’t afford to pay someone to do her taxes.

“It’s free and really close to home,” Gutierrez said. “I paid to have them done before this program started and it was always like half my refund.”

CU senior Ben Chee found more than $3,000 in refunds for Gutierrez.

“This is a lot more than I expected,” Gutierrez said. “This is going to do a lot.”

Chee is hoping to work for the IRS after graduation, so preparing taxes for the program is helping him learn about the forms and prepare for future jobs.

“I really wanted to give back to the community,” Chee said. “It’s beneficial experience for me too, helping me better understand the IRS forms.”

Broomfield resident Jyothi Sethuraman is doing taxes for the second time this year, after moving to the United States in 2009.

Sethuraman said the American tax process is difficult to understand and she is glad to have a free service to help her complete the forms.

“A friend recommended the program to me,” Sethuraman said. “I came last year and they did a good job and it was free so I came back again.”

CU will continue to offer two open sessions per week, Wednesday night and Saturday, through April 9.

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