All of the city services that co-op and condo owners enjoy come with a price and the agency that is generally the keeper of those very large purse strings is the New York City Department of Finance.
Finance is empowered to collect city revenues, encourage compliance with city tax codes and other revenue laws, value all real property in the city, maintain property records, and lastly, provide a forum for the public to dispute their taxes and parking violations.
Heading the 2,300-person agency as finance commissioner is Brooklynite Martha E. Stark. Stark came aboard in 2002 and immediately set about to improve the performance and processing of the agency. Her goal is to make Finance more efficient, effective and customer-friendly. The first African-American woman to direct the agency, overall achievements include reforming the property valuation process, simplifying the property tax billing process, administering a successful business tax amnesty program, and managing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s $400 tax rebate program for homeowners. She also launched a program to expand banking services in underserved neighborhoods.
Commissioner Stark actually began her career at Finance in the early 1990s when she held several management positions during the David Dinkins’ administration. She served as acting commissioner of the Conciliations Bureau, where she established the unit that works to mediate tax disputes. As an assistant commissioner, she also spearheaded the effort to make the agency more user-friendly in educating the public and elected officials about complex tax issues. Later on in 1998, Stark co-authored a New York University School of Law study that analyzed the high cost of building and renovating housing in the city. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from New York University, where she played varsity basketball. Today she teaches budget and finance at Hunter College and business law at Baruch.
Guarding the Purse Strings
Protecting the city’s fiscal health is no easy task. Finance collects about $18 billion annually in tax revenue and maintains records on more than one million city properties. In contrast, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance collects $34 billion in annual tax revenues. The city agency also conducts thousands of tax audits each year and adjudicates over two million parking tickets annually.
The mission of the department, according to Finance spokesman Owen Stone, is to “collect city revenues efficiently and fairly, encourage compliance with city tax and other revenue laws, value all real property in the city, provide a forum for the public to dispute tax and parking violation liability, and maintain property records.”
Commissioner Stark, says Stone, “is committed to making the city's tax system transparent, fair and efficient.” The department’s policies are formulated against that backdrop and designed so that more people pay the right amount on time.
A few changes have been incorporated to make the system more transparent, says Stone. “For instance, we've made sales prices for properties public, which allows the public to judge whether our property values are fair and makes the process more open. We've replaced multiple property tax bills with a quarterly Statement of Account that clearly shows past, current and future charges, and tells owners what credits they have on their accounts. We passed a bill last year that allows us to not charge interest when owners pay late as a result of a mistake the agency made, such as sending bills to the wrong address,” he says.
Follow the Money
While renowned today as the financial capital of the world, even during the Revolutionary War, New York City held its place as a center of finance and industry. The Department of Finance has existed in name since 1926 when Edward Flynn was the commissioner. The department was preceded in city government by the Department of Taxes and Assessments. Today it still plays a crucial role in the government hierarchy and the more than $18 billion in revenue it collects represents almost 30 percent of the city’s overall budget. “Finance also helps formulate tax policy that affects property and business owners, and administers tax incentives that encourage development and home ownership,” says Stone.
Maintaining Property Values
The department is divided into multiple divisions that handle all aspects of law, finance and taxation. An important overseer of the city’s housing stock, and one of the department’s 16 divisions, is the Property Division, which is empowered to appraise the city’s one million residential and commercial properties. This division, headed by Assistant Commissioner Dara Ottley-Brown, produces a tentative and final property tax assessment roll each year, to classify, describe, and value all parcels. Additionally, the surveyor’s office updates and maintains the official tax maps of the city of New York, updating the maps when property owners request the subdivision of large lots into smaller lots or the merging of smaller lots into larger parcels.
Another division, the Audit Division, headed up by Assistant Commissioner Pauline Hyles, oversees payment compliance. Tax auditors in this division conduct field and desk audits of business tax returns to make sure all companies and individuals required to pay New York City taxes—from the largest multinational corporations to the smallest, unincorporated businesses—pay their fair share. The division’s Audit's Taxpayer Identification (TPID) Unit uses computer matching technology to identify potential non-filers and delinquent taxpayers. This division also can assess additional taxes or seek civil penalties when appropriate, and also is charged with reviewing real property transfer tax returns.
Chief administrative law judge, Mary Gotsopoulis, heads up the Adjudication Division, where judges hear appeals of parking ticket violations. This division allows drivers to contest their tickets over the Internet, by mail or in person. This division also includes a special unit to conduct hearings and appeals on tickets issued to commercial vehicles, and the Red Light Camera Unit, which handles hearings and appeals for tickets issued at selected, photographed traffic light locations throughout New York City.
The city register under Annette M. Hill, maintains offices in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens to record and keep all official records of real and personal property transfers and interests, such as deeds, mortgages, and leases. In Staten Island, property records are recorded and maintained at the office of the county clerk. Finance also maintains the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS), which allows anyone to view property-related ownership documents online, going back to 1966, without having to visit the city register’s office. The Collections Division, under Assistant Commissioner Pamela Parker-Cortijo, collects outstanding business tax judgments, parking, Environmental Control Board (ECB) and Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) judgment fines.
In charge of the Communications and Customer Service Division is Assistant Commissioner Sam Miller. Miller oversees customer assistance, public relations, public information and press functions. This division also manages the agency's Parking and Property Tax Helplines, the Tax Lien Ombudsperson's Unit, and all requests for public information. It also provides tax clearance for street vendors and businesses that seek city contracts.
Another of the department’s divisions, Payment Operations, directed by Assistant Commissioner Leslie Zimmerman, processes all New York City business income and excise taxes, property taxes, and parking fines. The division is responsible for maintaining up-to-date taxpayer account information, and also implements a variety of individual, commercial and construction property tax exemption programs (including STAR, Senior Citizen, Veterans, etc.), which provide tax reductions for qualified property owners.
Interacting with the Citizenry
Accessibility is key, Stone says. The department has a multitude of business centers, located in each borough, to help taxpayers pay their bill or to contest a parking ticket. Taxpayers can also meet with city finance officials at special outreach events where abatements, exemptions or new benefits can be applied for. “We attend owners' nights throughout the city in conjunction with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), we've held Homeowner Fairs with the Brooklyn and Queens borough presidents, and we participate in town hall meetings and community events. We've also done advertising in local papers and we've put inserts into tax mailings that have information we think homeowners need to know.”
Applying for tax benefits has never been easier, says Stone. In June, the department released what is called a universal exemption form. Owners who wish to apply for the School Tax Relief (STAR), Veterans, Senior and Disabled Homeowner exemptions can now do so by filling out a two-page application. Owners of cooperative and condominium units can also use this form to apply for the co-op/condo abatement. Until now, managing agents had to fill out a very complicated form on behalf of unit owners to receive the abatement. The department, he says, is working on an online fill-in version of the new form so owners can send their information directly to their database, eliminating the need to key-enter data. Another major legislative initiative also came to the forefront in June. Pending Governor George Pataki’s signature, co-op prices will now become public information.
“Making sales prices public is a fundamental step toward making our property tax system easier to understand, thereby reducing the risk of corruption and making it easier for people to pay the correct amount of tax.
“In 2003, sales prices became public for most New York City properties, but because technically co-ops aren't classified as real property, sales prices remained secret. The change will also help people looking to buy and sell an apartment. By knowing more about the market they can avoid paying too much or selling for too little,” Stone says.
Taxes, parking tickets and other fees can be paid online without having to visit a department office. To contact the department, taxpayers can visit their website at www.nyc.gov/finance. n
Debra A. Estock is managing editor of The Cooperator.