“We’re committed to improving the financial literacy of residents and young in Flint”

FLINT, Michigan -- The month of April has been recognized as Financial Literacy Month in the United States since 2003.

The purpose of that designation is to highlight the importance of sound money management skills and to teach Americans how to create and maintain healthy financial habits.

Antonio Brown, a Flint native who has been a licensed CPA for more than 15 years, recently merged his CPA firm with The John L Group, LLC to create John L Financial Services. The John L Group is run by Brown and his brothers, Luther and Jermaine Brown. 

John L Financial Services works with individuals, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, churches, and others in the Flint area to provide tax education, preparation, and other services. He’s also planning to do some outreach to young people between the ages of 13-18 in the Flint area in April to highlight the importance of financial literacy. 

“April is financial literacy month,” he said. “One of the things we’re attempting to do in the city is have a series of financial literacy courses for teenagers between ages 13-18. We’re committed to improving the financial literacy of residents and youth in the city of Flint, and also getting more youth involved in or at least interested in the accounting industry. We’re grossly underrepresented, and it’s a highly respected field and a solid career path. If we can get more exposure to the accounting industry, it bodes well for the community at large.”

As an African American licensed CPA, Brown himself represents less than 1 percent of all CPAs in the United States -- of the more than 600,000 CPAs in the country, only about 5,000 are Black, according to the National Society of Black Certified Public Accountants.

Brown, who was educated in Flint’s public education system from grade school all the way through his first master’s degree, spoke with Flintside about his background in accounting and tax preparation, how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the industry, and some tips for people in the midst of preparing their taxes this year.

Flintside: What neighborhood or area in Flint did you grow up in and what high school did you graduate from?

Antonio Brown: “I’m from the northside, and spent the better part of my childhood by Garfield and King Elementary. I grew up on Jackson Avenue right off of MLK. I Graduated from Flint Northern in 2000, UM-Flint in 2004 and 2009 with MBA

“That’s what I tell people when I’m talking about Flint -- I was born, raised and educated right here in Flint. I went to Flint Public Schools, I went to UM-Flint. I just recently, in 2020, got my second masters from Wayne State in education. But for 20-25 years, I was educated right in the city of Flint, so I truly am a product of Flint -- the public education system from elementary all the way to post graduate.”

Flintside: What made you want to launch your business in the Flint area?

Antonio Brown: “I stayed in Flint. My wife and I, when we got married, we stayed in Flint and helped the community. I was doing my apprenticeship here. We had really taken root in Flint, we were raising a family.

“Back in 2005, I created AC Brown Tax Services and did taxes pretty much out of my house. In 2007, I passed my CPA license exam and got licensed and then launched AC Brown CPA and Associates in 2008. I launched it because, one, I lived in Flint and I really at that point didn’t plan on moving, so I established the business and still worked my job and then worked my business after hours.

“AC Brown CPA and Associates merged with the John L Group to formulate John L Financial Services. For more than 12 years or so, AC Brown CPA and Associates was the only Black-owned CPA firm in Genesee County. So, why stay in Flint? Because the Flint community needed us, especially when the population (in the city) is around 75-80 percent African American, to have representation in the accounting and CPA industry is important. There are some tax preparers or enrolled agents, but when you talk about the services of a CPA, we were for the most part, the only players in the county.  

“We’re (The John L Group) family-owned and operated. We’re blood brothers, three of us own the company, we’re born and raised in Flint and all graduated from UM-Flint as well. All of us have taken that same path of being educated in Flint, growing up in Flint, and wanting to give to the community in a way that is unique.”

Flintside: What drew you into accounting? Did you always have an interest in math and numbers? What sparked that for you growing up?

Antonio Brown: “Actually, my major going into college was child psychology. I wanted to be a child psychologist. Right around my junior year, I started really looking at business. I had an internship with GMAC in the finance department, so that drew me into the financial world. I’m actually a finance major, not an accounting major, but a professor by the name of Cathy Miller, when I was taking my accounting class asked me if I’d ever considered the accounting profession and CPA profession because I was doing well in her class, and that’s when she connected me with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, it’s a nonprofit tax assistance program, and I started working on doing tax returns in college and got more exposure to the accounting industry. 

“It wasn’t until I graduated and started working that I looked at my opportunities in finance, then looked at opportunities in accounting and had to take some additional accounting classes (in graduate school) that I didn’t take in undergrad. That’s really what piqued my interest, is her asking me about the industry and then me looking at my opportunities post-graduation and where I could be if I looked into the accounting field and chose to go the CPA route.”

Flintside: In the midst of tax season, what are some tips or advice you would suggest for people about filing this year, especially in a city with a large number of low- and moderate-income residents?

Antonio Brown: “My best advice is, for individuals, I believe the threshold is $50,000, if you make less than $50,000, you can actually file your federal income taxes free. Now, your state income taxes you may have to pay for the service, but if you go through the IRS website, you can actually file your tax return for free.

“But then, there’s also the VITA program, who will, for free, file your tax return for you. These are volunteers who often have years of experience providing the service. Some of them are experienced tax professionals who are looking to give back to low income individuals.

“But the biggest thing is making sure, if you’re going to self-prepare, that you understand tax law or have a general understanding of how to report, your dependents, etc., and if you don’t have that fundamental experience, then really truly seek a tax professional to assist you in filing.”

Flintside: There are places in Flint and really all over that often promise faster or bigger returns, but sometimes with large hidden expenses for preparation or other pitfalls. What advice would you give to people when selecting a tax preparer to make sure both that their taxes are being prepared correctly and they're not being taken advantage of?

Antonio Brown: “It’s like, who do I trust? Who do I go to? There’s a lot of companies out there that will file your tax return, but you’re paying these outrageous fees. These companies prey on low-income to moderate-income families because most of the time they qualify for earned income tax credits. A lot of times, taxpayers perceive that as kind of free money when it isn’t. It’s not free money, you qualify for it because you don’t make enough to live -- the earned income credit is to supplement low income earners. If you qualify for it, it’s not free, it’s meant to help you throughout the year.”

Flintside: How has the pandemic changed tax preparation season? Have things like stimulus payments or unemployment benefits created more complications or confusion among people about filing this year? 

Antonio Brown: “The IRS is reporting that over 6 million 2019 tax returns have still yet to be processed. The second round of stimulus was based solely on your 2019 tax return. So for those individuals who didn’t have their taxes processed, they’re missing out on the refund they were supposed to get and have not received yet plus they didn’t get their second round of stimulus. 

“The changes in the way tax preparers are preparing tax returns this year is almost 100 percent virtual. For me, I’ve gone to a 100 percent virtual process. I had to invest in a secure client portal and actually had to train clients on how to use the portal and upload their sensitive tax information so they’re not transmitting that information over a public email or sending sensitive documents via a picture and text.

“That’s been a big change. Then, we’re doing exit interviews or having virtual meetings on Zoom instead of in an office discussing personal tax information. It’s just different, and tax professionals across the nation are moving toward that. I honestly think it’s going to change the way we do tax preparation moving forward anyway.”

More information about John L Financial Services is available on their website, Facebook page, or Instagram page.

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.