FAST: Getting Your Site Started with Free Assisted Self-service Tax Preparation

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HARDY: Hello. I'm Mel Hardy. And I'm in beautiful Atlanta, Georgia. A little bit later on, we're going to go over and talk to the folks at the Atlanta Community Food Bank about all the great work that they're doing around free self-assisted tax prep. So let's go on over and talk to the folks about FAST.

Well, hello. I'm Mel Hardy. And today we're at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. I'm talking with Cicely Garrett. How are you?

-GARRETT: Hi. How are you?

-HARDY: I'm well. I'm well.

-GARRETT: Nice to meet you.

HARDY: Tell me a little bit about your organization.

GARRETT: So, we're here at the food bank. Our mission is to eradicate hunger and poverty by educating, empowering the community around us.

HARDY: Mm-hmm.

GARRETT: And so the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign started as an initiative of the food bank to go beyond just feeding people and to help them become economically stable.

HARDY: Talk to me a little bit about your VITA program.

GARRETT: So, we do have traditional VITA sites in about 12 counties and about 45 locations. And we integrated the FAST model in with those VITA sites at about 10 of our largest sites. Also have another model that we found worked well, where we targeted sort of new filers at the local colleges and universities, and we actually go out to their locations on designated dates and help them prepare their taxes on-site.

HARDY: So, now that you're using the FAST model, free self-assisted model, how did you find it? Was it easy, difficult?

GARRETT: I found the setup to be fairly easy. Most of the providers who participate in the FAST model, they want to make it as easy for us as possible, so they're very good about answering your questions, making sure you have the materials and things you need for the setup.

HARDY: Once you've decided that this is what you want to do...

GARRETT: Right.

HARDY: ...what do you need to do behind the scenes to get it all set up?

GARRETT: Well, I think you need to sort of choose locations that will support the model the best. One of the biggest things that you'll definitely need is a stable Internet connection, as well as computers that will support the FAST system with the up-to-date browsers.

HARDY: So, let me ask you this. Once you actually secure all the physical requirements...

GARRETT: Right.

HARDY:...what are the next steps?

GARRETT: Well, the next steps are just sort of behind-the-scenes things. So you want to make sure that your kiosk is set up and easily accesses the sites that you're going to use for the FAST programs.

HARDY: And when you say "kiosk," you're talking about just the laptop machine?

GARRETT: It could be a laptop or a desktop computer -- whichever form your site chooses to use. And just sort of is similar to a VITA site. Every FAST program that you use has to have its own site-identification number so that the returns that you prepare at your location can be tracked and counted, as well. And so the IRS liaison that works with the FAST program will help you secure that identification number. And then they'll also help you sort of set it up so that you can design the icon for your computer so that you can easily access the website, as well, and that it will also go back to your particular site-identification number.

HARDY: So, once you contacted your SPEC person, what happened then?

GARRETT: After I indicated I was interested in the program, within a short amount of time, they responded back, and they send you a sort of introductory e-mail.

HARDY: Mm-hmm.

GARRETT: They let you know what link is particular to your site and include your site I.D. number. And then it also gives you prompts on how to set up the icon on your desktop and how to access it. It goes step by step, complete with screen shots.

HARDY: Right.

GARRETT: So even if you have never done anything like this before, I think it's fairly user-friendly, easy to catch on.

HARDY: So it wasn't difficult.

GARRETT: Nope, they went through each step -- what you would see, what you would do next -- page by page.

HARDY: Okay, so you're sent the link in the initial e-mail.

GARRETT: Yes.

HARDY: How easy is it for the taxpayer to access that?

GARRETT: Well, after we sent the link, if it's sort of our computer they're going to be using all the time, you can just click on the link, and once it appears in the browser, you can just sort of drag it to your desktop or copy and paste it. After it lives there, whenever the client comes, they can just double-click on it.

HARDY: Now, once the link is loaded, how do you know that you have the correct link?

GARRETT: That's a good question. So, if you refer back to your e-mail that you originally got with your introductory package, it tells you what your site-identification number is.

HARDY: Mm-hmm.

GARRETT: And so if you were always looking up into the browser where the address appears, your site-identification number should always be showing at the end of the address.

HARDY: So, let me ask you, what happens if you're in a public location that wipes everything out once a day? What do you do then?

GARRETT: Well, there's sort of three options you can take with that. You could have your staff show up early before the site opens and just sort of preset the browser on each computer so it's already open to your site.

HARDY: Okay. Difficult to do?

GARRETT: Not hard at all. It's just the same as opening any sort of web browser and going to your favorite site. A lot of people will e-mail the link to themselves so they make sure they always have the link correctly, so since everyone can usually access their e-mail from wherever, they can just go into their e-mail, click, open it up, and there it's preloaded for them.

HARDY: Okay.

GARRETT: And then another way would be if you happen to have an access to sort of an intranet or sort of a password-protected version of your own website.

HARDY: Mm-hmm.

GARRETT: You could load it there, and so then your coaches, while they're out on-site doing FAST, they can just access it from wherever they are. Each time, they could click in a secure location and bring up your FAST provider site.

HARDY: So, when you did run into a problem, what did you do?

GARRETT: We usually just sent off an e-mail or picked up the phone. All the FAST providers provide us with direct-contact information, as well as the IRS SPEC liaison, so we could reach any of them at any time. And even without you having problems, they do check in with you periodically, ask you how things are going, are there things you need from them, and at the end of each season, they also ask for feedback from all the sites on what could be better, what things we would like to see next year. So they're really interested in helping to improve the program on a continuous basis.

HARDY: Talk to me a little bit about how important it is to maintain that relationship with the IRS -- I mean, to help this facilitative model work.

GARRETT: I think it is just one person you can go to. They are very responsive to your e-mails and questions. They sort of already know all the ins and outs of the program and have tested it ahead of time, so it's not like we're getting it and then testing it and figuring it out and seeing if it's going to work for us. They already know that it can work. It's just rolling it out to us for us to use.

HARDY: Well, that was great. I want to thank Cicely Garrett for sitting down and talking to me about all the great work that they're doing around FSA, both on the college campuses and at their co-located sites. So till the next time, I'm Mel Hardy. Take care.