Yesterday, I met with Roxanne Murek to chat about the Tax Clinic which is housed above Magic Mountain Day Care. At th clinic, volunteers prepare and file taxes for individuals who make less than $51,000, for free. Roxanne oversees the clinic and has prepared taxes for 22 years; she just received her LLM in Environmental Law from VLS in December.
Read my interview with Roxanne to learn about why taxes are like jigsaw puzzles, Roxanne’s career aspirations, and why the free tax clinic is so important to the community. I also share my experience with the tax clinic—let’s just say it was profitable.
Interview conducted and edited by Heidi Conner.
Lots of people hate doing their taxes. Where did your love of filing taxes come from? When I worked in the Air Force JAG program, someone was needed to run the tax program. My base was closing and there wasn’t a lot for a court reporter to do—so I got the job. I started finding loop holes in tax laws, which is kind of like a jig-saw puzzle, plus you get to help clients.
What is your favorite loop hole? The loop hole that I cut my teeth on, was a loop hole in a California state law for military people. The loop hole had to do with community property versus separate property states and allowed Military to keep more of their income, by not filing so much of their wives income. Through the loop hole they could keep one half of their wives income, and not have to pay taxes on it. So that was a wonderful loop hole, but loop holes are closing up quite a bit.
On a more fundamental level, what are taxes? I know I pay them, and I know I normally get something back. When I do my taxes, what am I actually doing? You are funding the federal and state government.
So what is a tax return then? Why do I get money back? It all depends on how much your withholding levels are and all the different idiosyncrasies in your household. There is no cookie cutter tax return—each is different. Even if two people had the exact same income, they may not owe the same amount of taxes. There are a lot of factors that go into tax preparation, and why you would or would not get a return.
Can you tell me about the tax clinic that you run at VLS? In the fall, we start training volunteers. It is roughly six to eight weeks of training—one night a week, for two hours. To prepare taxes, volunteers must get through intermediate testing. The clinic is open in late January, and I try to keep it open until April 15. Running the clinic is a team effort. I may be the leader of the group, but it all a team effort. I oversee and make sure that things are going ok.
Who does the tax clinic serve and why is there a need for this service? We serve anyone who makes $51,000 or less. Unfortunately we can not help self-employed individuals unless they have more income than expenses—the IRS just changed that this year. The need is there because so many people here in Vermont do not make $51,000 a year and don’t have the extra income to have someone prepare their taxes. Central Vermont Community Action Council, is actually available year round and can help clients fix returns. I am also available year round. Taxes are a year round thing, and we have to be available.
So anyone can go to Central Vermont Community Action Council if they get notices after their taxes have been filed? Yes, as long as they make $51,000 or less.
What is the largest tax return you’ve ever helped someone with?
I think $10,000 was the most. However, $8,000 is the norm for some of my clients. Last year, we served a person here who received well over $8,000—she had children she was trying to feed. She was in tears.
So this must be rewarding work for you. Yes, it is very rewarding. That is the reason why I want students to see how rewarding tax and law can be. And, it doesn’t have to be years—it is instant gratification within 15 minutes. You definitely can make someone’s day.
So you just graduated with your LLM in December—what is your dream job? What would you like to do? I would love to be a faculty member. I see a huge melding between tax law and the environment. There are a lot of credits for PHV, residential energy credits, solar, geothermal, and more—that a lot of people don’t know about. I would like to educate students and others on the different things that can be done that increase energy efficiency and also earn them tax credits. I want to help people understand and weigh their choices when making energy decisions, like double and tripled paned windows—or between a hybrid vehicle, a phev vehicle, or a standard truck. People need to be educated and not everyone likes to read the tax code as much as me. I am interested in what the individual can do to [help the environment]; things that just can’t be done at the national and state level.
Heidi, I have a question for you. What is your comparison between Turbo Tax and coming to the Tax Clinic? I dreaded doing my taxes before I went to the clinic last year. I actually had a really fun time last year. It was an interactive experience, and I felt like I learned a little bit about what was actually happening. I am really excited to come in this year to see if I can beat last year’s tax return. You told me last year, that when I turn 25, I could potentially get another credit. Let’s just say, I’ve got my fingers crossed!