May 10, 2004

Controller's office serves growing international presence        

By Eric Rangus

With revenues and expenses in the billions of dollars, keeping track of Emory’s finances requires a very large calculator. Pushing the buttons are the employees in the Office of the Controller, a small operation (fewer than 20 people are located there) whose responsibilities far outweigh its mass.

“Our most critical deliverable, if you will, is providing University financial statements with an unqualified opinion,” said Martha McDonald, associate vice president and university controller. “And an unqualified opinion means that the external auditors—KPMG, in our case—have not found any material problems with our financial statements.”

The controller’s office falls under the Division of Finance, led by Edith Murphree, vice president for finance. The division also includes the offices of the bursar, grants and contracts, accounts payable, payroll, student financial services, cash management and administrative budgeting. Their work, while not often seen by the community at large, is crucial to Emory’s smooth operation.

Not all of the controller’s office work is done behind a curtain, however. For instance, the office provides significant services to international students and scholars.

Throughout the year, staff members work with them to determine their eligibility for exemption from tax withholding on their scholarships and wages. This process is led by Mary Andrews Chenault and Carol Carter, the University advisers on nonresident alien (NRA) tax issues. Depending on a student’s home country, he or she could—through treaties signed with the U.S. government—receive as much as $5,000 of wages free of withholding.

“I find this work interesting and challenging with the multicultural aspect,” Chenault said. “I tailor my approach for each individual.”

The office also provides income tax assistance to international students every spring. In March, the office hosted group training to help international students fill out their tax forms. Then in April staff members met with students individually to review their completed forms for accuracy and offer practical assistance with such things as assembly, where to file and how to receive their income tax refunds by direct deposit. The last session took place Monday, April 12.

Initially, income tax assistance was outsourced to KPMG at a fairly significant cost to the University. In 2001, McDonald sought training in this area for her staff. As a result, Emory was recognized as a VITA (Voluntary Income Tax Assistance) site. The program allows the University to assist nonresident individuals with their income tax preparation at no risk to the institution.

In 2002, the controller’s office conducted the first VITA help sessions, which were very well received and more cost-effective for the University. Around 180 students and scholars attended that first year. This year, around 260 students and scholars participated in the training sessions, a 44 percent increase.

“You can imagine how popular this is,” McDonald said. “How would you like to be in a foreign country, completing their tax return forms in a second language? It wouldn’t be easy.”

Two years ago the controller’s office purchased software that makes the entire process easier. With this software, students provide immigration information online including U.S. entry/exit dates that determine their residency status.

“Students can fill it out from wherever they want,” said Stephen Frangis, associate director of the controller’s office. “We are one of the few schools that uses an online questionnaire. It’s very popular with students and scholars and has enhanced productivity. A variation of this software purchased in conjunction with the Office of International Student and Scholar Programs allows international students and scholars to prepare their federal tax returns online.”

The coming and going of April 15 has brought a temporary end to this effort, but work has not stopped in the controller’s office. With new executive leadership, there is much focus on improved reporting.

This year, for the first time, the controller’s office has produced interim period financial statements in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. These reports support the initiatives of Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration, Mike Mandl, and provide trustees and senior administrators a more timely look at the University’s financial health. And, it won’t be long before preparations for August 31 fiscal year-end and the fall external audit begin.

“Much of our work is compliance related or involves providing financial information to management of the University,” McDonald said. “It is true in this sense that the controller’s office operates largely as a back-office operation. It is refreshing for us to also serve Emory by assisting University international students and scholars. This is our front-line opportunity to support Emory’s educational mission."