Newsmaker: Meet the New Taxpayer Rights Advocate Margaret Neri

Published Date:
Dec 12, 2014

In July, Margaret “Peg” Neri was appointed the state’s new Taxpayer Rights Advocate, after her predecessor, Camille Siano Enders, left the post to become deputy commissioner and director of the Bureau of Conciliation and Mediation Services. Neri is a tax department veteran, having spent the past 15 years of her career as a litigator in its Office of Counsel and, more recently, as its ethics officer. (She’ll continue to hold that title, even as she tackles her new position.) Prior to that, she worked in the private sector, with a focus on hospital finance, health care and judgment enforcement. As the third person to fill the advocate role since it was created in 2009, Neri comes to the office at a time of heightened activity: The commissioner has prioritized making direct contact with taxpayers for outreach and education. In fact, within the past few years the department has doubled, from three staff members devoted solely to this purpose to six. Neri spoke with The Trusted Professional about her goals going forward. To meet Neri in person, attend the Foundation for Accounting Education’s New York State Taxation Conference on Oct. 20 in New York City.

What is it about this role that interests you? Why did you decide this was a good move to make?
After litigating tax cases for 15 years, I see this as an opportunity to serve taxpayers in a different and more direct way. The advocate is uniquely positioned to give one-on-one assistance to taxpayers, whether it’s setting up a manageable payment plan, for example, or doing educational outreach to help people understand which records they need to support their tax filings. I’m honored and excited to be taking on this role.

How has your background prepared you for the job?
I think my background helps in two different ways: As an attorney in the department’s Office of Counsel, I litigated cases before the Division of Tax Appeals and the Tribunal, so I’ve developed good working relationships with managers throughout the department. Also, prior to coming to the tax department, I was in private practice. Working in private practice, you learn that clients with legal problems usually face other challenges, as well. I also learned that there are many people who just don’t understand their rights or responsibilities under the law. I brought these insights to my work as a tax litigator and will bring them with me to my work in the TRA office. 

How did you come to work for the tax department?
I was in private practice for about 10 years, at two different law firms. Though I enjoyed it, I was drawn to public service. I had always had an interest in serving—I’m a long-time community volunteer—and the tax department’s litigation division was a natural fit for me.

What are your main priorities in the short and long term?
In the short term, we will continue to make sure taxpayers understand their rights and move cases along efficiently, with timely and professional communications. In the long term, as we advocate for the taxpayers, we will be looking for ways to identify systemic changes that can be made in the department. It could be training or it could be new regulations or proposed legislation. Either way, identifying the crucial changes that need to be made in order to bring about improvements to how the department and taxpayers interact is a high priority. I’m hopeful that my experience in this department and the relationships I’ve formed will help me implement some of these changes.

What’s your plan for managing the transition from your predecessor?
I think it will be a smooth transition. I will continue the good work Camille started, particularly in providing assistance to taxpayers who are working with the department to substantiate their refundable credits. We have a strong staff here at the advocate’s office, which will make for a very smooth transition going forward.

How do you think your tenure will differ from that of Enders? How will it be the same?
I don’t really think it will be all that different. Everyone brings their own leadership style, but the work is basically the same: advocacy, examining hardship cases and helping taxpayers get back on track, as well as examining situations to determine what the department needs to do in order to improve procedures and processes.

How would you describe your leadership style? Are you a hands-on kind of leader, someone who looks for good people to delegate to, someone who seeks consensus, or someone who is more confrontational?
I think I’m many of those things, depending on the situation. I wouldn’t say I’m confrontational, for example, but I would say I stand squarely in my space and make my own judgment. I’m an independent thinker who makes her own assessments.

What are your biggest concerns about how the tax department interacts with taxpayers in New York, and how do you plan to use your office to address them?
OOne of the things we learned in the last year or two was that, in many areas of the department, there isn’t time to listen to and educate taxpayers. It’s just not possible, volumewise. I’d like to use the experiences and data we’ve collected to show that the time spent with taxpayers helps them to better understand the laws and our processes. I think this is a big lesson for all of us and will allow us to affect change.

One of the initiatives that started under Camille was increasing outreach and education among taxpayers—our efforts to attend elder fairs and expand our tax summits, for example, are reflective of this initiative. I think there is a real value in meeting with taxpayers where they are in their communities. By the same token, education is a feedback loop—beyond educating our taxpayers, we can use what we hear in our outreach to educate our employees as well, so that one area informs the other.  

As advocate, how do you anticipate working with the CPA profession?
I’m looking forward to working with the Society and other organizations for professionals who serve taxpayers. You bring a valuable insight on the taxpayer experience, and can often provide more global perspectives on the issues. I’m hopeful that the upcoming months will provide a variety of opportunities for us to dialogue.

You’re also the ethics officer for the tax department. How do you think these two roles support each other, and in what ways might they bump against each other?
The ethics officer role definitely supports the work at the advocate’s office. As ethics officer, I provide ethics training and guidance to employees, informing them of obligations under public officers law and departmental codes of conduct. In our training classes, we spend a lot of time discussing the department’s mission statement, which is “to efficiently collect tax revenues in support of state services and programs, while acting with integrity and fairness in the administration of the tax laws of New York state.” As the advocate, I think I will be uniquely positioned to evaluate whether we are in line with that mission statement. I don’t see the two roles bumping against each other at all.

What was the last really good book you read?
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks was a really notable book for me. It’s historical fiction and the writing is simply lyrical. It was just a beautiful book.

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