Newsmaker: NYC Taxpayer Advocate Helps New Yorkers Resolve Their Property and Business Tax Issues

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jun 20, 2017
Eunkyong Choi-3

Eunkyong Choi was appointed to the New York City Office of the Taxpayer Advocate last June, becoming the second person to hold this position. An attorney who specialized in tax controversies, she has extensive experience working with and advocating for low-income taxpayers and immigrant communities. She sat down with The Trusted Professional to talk a little bit about her background, her priorities and what the taxpayer advocate can do for the people and businesses of New York.

What does the New York City Office of the Taxpayer Advocate do?

Our mission is to help New York City taxpayers resolve their issues with the Department of Finance. Our office deals with two different issues: New York City property tax and business tax issues. New York City has one of the most complex property tax systems probably anywhere in the world. There are different tax rates, depending on what kind of property you own. Currently, you have four tax class systems, and [depending on what class] you’re in, you need someone to help you sort out or maybe even explain that there is someone in the Department of Finance you could talk to. Helping the taxpayer navigate the system, that is why our office is there.

What have been your main priorities since coming into the New York City Office of the Taxpayer Advocate?

Under the last taxpayer advocate, [the office] introduced the Taxpayer Bill of Rights for New York City, and it’s similar to the one that is currently in place at the national level. I want to make sure that this Taxpayer Bill of Rights is being respected and we don’t have violations of things like the right to be informed, or the right to challenge, the right to be heard. Oftentimes, the taxpayers would tell us, and even practitioners would tell us, that it’s very hard to get through to the Department of Finance, that they spend more time chasing information rather than working on the issue itself and trying to resolve the problem. So we are like the middle guy trying to navigate the process and keep people informed of who to go to and where to go.

Since being appointed, what have been some of the more common issues you’ve found people encountering?

The top problem is property tax issues. Taxpayers often tell us they have a problem with the way the city administers the property tax exemption laws, whether [it’s about] an abatement or exemption or [benefit] revocation or the way they have been assessed—we have over 112 cases relating to exemption issues. That’s number one. The second would be where taxpayers are confused over how their property taxes have been assessed. Also, at the business level, how their business taxes are assessed. When the Department of Finance, the business unit, [goes through] the audit process and makes adjustments to the taxpayer bills, oftentimes there’s not a clear explanation as to the changes taking place, why they made certain changes. I think the city needs to be better at providing an explanation. And I think the city is moving forward, but it’s going to take time; it’s a work in progress. Another thing is we have a lack of clear notices, how [taxpayer] bills have not been explained correctly. So it all comes down to a big picture lack of communication, or finding a better way to communicate with taxpayers.

 How do you envision the role of CPAs in all this? Do you think about these problems mainly in legal terms, or is there an accounting angle too?

Our office, we really do not provide legal assistance per se. We help taxpayers deal with tax issues. So I think, when working with professionals, whether attorneys or CPAs or accountants, you are the vital member of this team we are working with. I look at the attorneys and CPAs and other practitioners as my partners, because when we are not able to resolve the issues, we want to have a network or group or someone we can refer the taxpayer to. Second, my office is not only helping taxpayers resolve their issues, but also [educating] the taxpayers so they don’t get into further problems, and cut down on reoccurrence of these problems. We really do need to work with our practitioners because they are on the front line, helping taxpayers, especially dealing with ESL [English as a Second Language] communities. I think it’s very valuable to work with practitioners who have the trust of our taxpayers, because they are the ones who know the community they serve.

We have programs and brochures and fliers in different languages, but that’s just not enough. You have to go one step [further] and work with communities and educate community members about different available programs, how to get help, whether they qualify for things like a tax extension. Practitioners are first in line, so I find working with my partners to be very valuable in providing more relief and help to taxpayers we cannot work with ourselves.

How do you envision your relationship with the preparer community? What can they do for you, and what can you do for them?

Especially when it comes to business tax issues, oftentimes we work directly with CPAs or attorneys, because they are the ones representing their business clients and they come to us, sometimes because they are not able to connect with the right person … sometimes even as practitioners who have lots of experience dealing with certain issues. Sometimes, they run into a wall, so they need someone who can just open the door for them—sometimes, we are that [person]. So they can get in and talk to the right people to get their tax issues resolved for their clients. I am working to create a cheat sheet for practitioners who may not be as familiar with certain programs; you need to give them tools they can work with.

You have extensive experience advocating for taxpayers, particularly low-income taxpayers. What’s the difference between doing taxpayer advocacy as a private citizen and doing so as taxpayer advocate in city government?

The main difference is [that] there is no income threshold we need to monitor. When I [provided] legal services in Washington University [School of Law]’s low-income taxpayer clinic, the program itself [was] funded through a grant, so they required you to have the taxpayers meet certain requirements, [including] an income requirement; they have to be truly low income. Whereas the taxpayer advocate, our office, we help all New York City taxpayers, so it doesn’t matter whether their income is high or low; [they just] need to meet our case criteria, meaning [they] have a legitimate tax issue relating to property tax or business tax issues, and [they] tried to resolve the problems with the Department of Finance but got nowhere. Or it could be that if [the taxpayer does] not get help, it will cause irreparable harm and [we] have to move quickly to help those taxpayers.  That’s what I really like, being able to help everyone.

When I worked at the low-income tax clinic, most of my clients were very poor. Some used to be very productive and had a lot of bad things happen to them and lost everything. The issues are a little different, but [how we address them is] basically the same in that we are the navigator; you take a position and advocate for your taxpayers.

Drawing on your own experience as an immigrant, what are the kinds of tax issues that tend to disproportionately affect immigrants in New York City that others may not face as much?

It’s been my experience that you often see ESL communities having problems with getting information. They’re usually the last to know about certain programs, and to the extent they’re getting information, sometimes there’s a lot of misinformation going on in the community because, first, there’s a language barrier for some, and added to that is the tax lingo, the terms. It’s complex, even for laypeople—you’re asking immigrants to absorb the terms and the complex uses of certain tax languages we as lawyers and accountants [take for granted]. ... When they do get information, they often don’t get the right information. So because they don’t get the right information, that is where they run into problems.

Do you mean just in general, or in terms of how the city communicates with them?

Both. I do see this as a city issue. … I was in the southeastern Asian community, and one gentleman told me he bought a building and qualified for some exemptions. He said it was not a building in use; it was under construction, and the way the city made assessments on his tax bill, he didn’t agree. So he didn’t know where to go. Friends of friends said sometimes it’s better to just pay [the bill] because you’re going to have accruing interests and penalties, and he did, but he didn’t know there were certain deadlines where you can make a request, so he thought, “I’ll just pay it, and maybe can appeal it later.” Well, yeah, technically, but the time [frame to appeal potentially] has gone, so you really cannot address it.

So even for sophisticated taxpayers, they have those issues because they’re getting misinformation. They need to be educated as to what programs are available, how to apply, how to qualify and, to the extent they deserve or are entitled to a refund, how to claim it. In certain communities, they’re not used to asking for certain things, and I think a lot of their leaders and people they rely on are not well versed in different programs and how they are administered.

What have been some things your office has been doing to help them reach this point of understanding?

That’s part of my outreach, to go out there and network within the ESL community, the leaders, the practitioners, whether attorneys or CPAs; we need to go out and educate them on the different programs the city has. Sometimes, breaking into an ESL community can be a challenge, especially if you’re not of that community, but once you get in, they’re very welcoming, and in fact, they want you to come in and talk to them,.

But sometimes the challenge is being able to communicate, especially when it comes to trying to put it into layman’s terms, the complex tax terms, [to] break it down so that they understand it really well in order to explain it to their community members. So that has been a little challenging, but we are working on it, and that is part of our series—ESL outreach. We are hoping more professionals will come so they get to really learn something about how to navigate, at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level, the issues that impact taxpayers and the communities they serve. We’re going to talk about different programs there and how to get them in a format that is user-friendly so they can bring it [to] their community.

You also observe overall how the New York City tax system works and will sometimes make suggestions for improvements. What have been improvements you would like see happen?

One of the big things we are advocating for, [as] I mentioned earlier, [is] ways to improve communication. Part of that is making notices and letters clear and user-friendly, and [trying] to use simpler language. Second, practitioners have told me [that] accessing the Department of Finance’s policies and guidelines and procedures [is hard].  [They] don’t know what the Department of Finance is looking for. So one thing we’re asking is to maybe have procedures and policies in place [the way] the IRS has. I believe there would be fewer mistakes [if procedures and guidelines would] be applied consistently, because if it requires XYZ and the practitioner follows XYZ, they should always get similar results, even though] each taxpayer has their own unique issues that will change the fact patterns a little bit. But generally, if you’re required to submit XYZ documents, it should be applied. So we are asking for that, and the Department of Finance is looking to streamline or at least have their procedures and guidelines online or maybe available for the public. I’m hoping it’s [going to happen] sooner rather than later.

Taxpayer data security is becoming an increasingly important issue at all levels. Is there anything the Taxpayer Advocate’s Office is doing, or can do, regarding this issue?

Just like every tax authority and agency, we don’t disclose taxpayer information, so in that way we do safeguard. The Department of Finance recently launched an E-service [for business taxpayers to check their tax information], and in order to control how that works, they require double-factor authentication, so it is there to safeguard the taxpayer’s information. But there’s always a balance, there’s a need to be efficient, and there’s a need to protect and safeguard. E-service was set up to make it easier for practitioners to access client files, but establishing that system is hard to go through. The Department of Finance understands you have to have safeguards and then create extra layers, so they’re trying to figure it out.

 

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