For most New Yorkers, tax time is a part of life that comes and goes without a hitch – they get their wage statements and assorted paperwork, file their returns and get on with their lives until next year.
For some people, however, problems arise beyond run-of-the-mill return issues and when these taxpayers exhaust all the usual administrative resources looking for a solution, the Office of the Taxpayers Rights Advocate comes in and shines.
“We are here to answer peoples’ complaints or work with them on their issues,” said 15-year PEF member Chris Meislahn, director of the Office of the Taxpayers Rights Advocate. “We try to explain the situation in a manner that they can understand. We also work within the department to ensure that taxpayers’ rights are always followed and that everyone adheres to policies and procedures.”
Established in 2009, the Office of the Taxpayers Rights Advocate is “a place for taxpayers to receive an independent review of their tax situation while promoting and upholding the department’s mission of fair and equitable application of the tax laws.”
The PEF members who make up Meislahn’s five-person team have to be well versed in all aspects of tax law, especially the four main categories – personal income tax, corporate tax, withholding tax and sales tax.
“There are numerous other taxes out there that we do handle,” Meislahn said. “We have to know them all or know where to get the answer. We have contacts in the department with people who know every tax type and we can go to them with questions.”
On an average day, PEF members respond to clients who filed a Request for Assistance.
“We get about 1,200 a year,” Meislahn said. “Staff reviews the situation, looks at the taxpayer’s history and considers what help they are requesting. We have had every type of taxpayer request assistance, from a taxpayer who makes very little money, to people who make tens of millions, all the way to Fortune 500 companies. We try to keep them on the same page and make sure everyone is treated equally and fairly.”
Sometimes the problems the office fields affect more than just an individual and are a systemic problem.
“If we see it’s not just one taxpayer, we can work with the unit on how we can help all these taxpayers with the same issue,” Meislahn said. “Is it something in the language of our letters? Is there something that we’re missing? There are 26 million returns a year, of course there will be problems.”
With systemic issues, the staff participates on department policy committees, lobbies legislators on taxpayer issues, and proposes legislation to improve the process. They also educate the public on department policies, processes and procedures.
“It’s very rewarding being able to see someone come in with a problem, not know what the issue is, and being able to work to identify the problem and help resolve it,” Meislahn said. “Taxes are not something people like talking about. People get antsy at tax time. It’s something you have to do and there is a big benefit. Governments run on taxes. We need to ensure we’re collecting but we don’t want anyone to overpay either.”
Meislahn said the stigma attached to “tax time” is understandable, but the department is dedicated to making the process understandable and fair.
“I think as a whole the tax department is there to try and do the right thing,” he said. “Sometimes people just need a little bit of extra help. That is what we’re trying to do, be an avenue for people to come with odd situations, who don’t fall into the structured world that we have. We are a very automated department with millions of returns and refunds. Sometimes there’s a curveball.”