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The Department of Finance Is Making House Calls

Marianne Schaefer in Bricks & Bucks on June 26, 2019

Bayside, Queens

House Calls

Department of Finance staffers offer tax-abatement advice to shareholders at Bay Terrace co-op in Queens.

June 26, 2019

New York City’s bureaucracy is not known for being user-friendly. Byzantine and opaque are adjectives that come more readily to mind. So it’s news when the Department of Finance (DOF) starts making house calls on co-ops, in an effort to make sure that eligible shareholders are getting all of their available tax exemptions and abatements

The first beneficiary of this unorthodox outreach campaign was the 727-unit Bay Terrace co-op in northeast Queens, which consists of four separate corporations. Several emissaries from the DOF set up shop inside the co-op recently with their own computers, Wi-Fi, and printers. During a two-hour session, the staffers reviewed the accounts of about 60 shareholders. 

“People were able to review their exemptions and find out what they’re entitled to and could take advantage of,” says Warren Schreiber, board president of Bay Terrace, Section I. “Right then and there, they could put in their application for those additional exemptions. I was very pleased – because usually we only get bills from the DOF.” 

Schreiber stresses that the session addressed only exemptions and abatements that are directly available to individual shareholders, such as senior citizens, clergy, veterans, and people with disabilities. The session did not address the co-op abatement on property taxes

(Many co-op boards impose an assessment roughly equal to each shareholder’s portion of the corporate abatement, then funnel that assessment income into the reserve fund or operating budget. For shareholders, it’s a virtually painless way to contribute to the running of the co-op. “For most shareholders,” says CPA Jay Menachem, “it’ll be a wash.”) 

Getting back to the individual abatements and exemptions, Schreiber says, “The DOF provides the corporation with a list of people who are eligible and the amount of each individual’s abatement. From February through June, we credit that amount to the shareholder’s monthly maintenance. We get that back in tax credits when we pay our corporate property taxes. It benefits the shareholders, especially people on fixed incomes, and it doesn’t cost the co-op anything. It’s a win-win.” 

By all accounts, the session at Bay Terrace was well received by shareholders because it was much easier than navigating the DOF system on the internet. “Usually it is extremely difficult dealing with the Department of Finance,” says attorney Geoffrey Mazel, a partner at Hankin & Mazel, who represents the four Bay Terrace co-ops. “This is brilliant. Those people would have dealt with the DOF for months. It’s a great use of public resources. This is when your government is working.” 

The DOF house call originated when a Bay Terrace shareholder contacted the office of state Senator John Liu, whose district covers northeast Queens. “We’re going to do our best to make our way through all the co-ops in the district,” says Heather Stewart, communications director for Senator Liu. “Our plan is to visit all who are interested in the program. Anybody in our constituency who would like this service is certainly welcome to contact us.” 

If the Bay Terrace experience is a barometer, co-ops across the city might soon warm up to house calls from the DOF. “The usual kind of thinking is to beware if you hear something like, ‘We’re here from the government and we want to help you,’” says Schreiber. “In this case, the shareholders welcomed the government because they were indeed able to help people. We would welcome DOF to come back.”

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