Committee Reports

Proposed Amendment to the New York City Charter In Order to Simplify the Application Process to Correct Property Tax Assessments

SUMMARY

The Condemnation and Tax Certiorari Committee issued a report proposing amendments to Sections 163 and 164-A of the New York City Charter to simplify the application process to correct property tax assessments at the New York City Tax Commission. The proposed change would allow Tax Commission applications to be “certified” instead of “duly verified.” The report explains why the verification requirement poses an unnecessary procedural obstacle to NYC taxpayers’ access to the opportunity for correction of erroneous tax assessments, including the fact that all other localities in the state rely on certified applications for assessment relief, and that the City’s Finance Department does not impose a notarization burden on taxpayers filing Real Property Income and Expense forms used in setting assessments. “When verification prevents taxpayers from presenting meritorious claims, the Tax Commission is hampered in the full and proper exercise of its mandates to correct assessments for the benefit of taxpayers facing over-taxation, provide due process, and ensure fairness in the administration of the property tax system.”

The Committee also sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio urging that, while legislation is necessary to achieve permanent change, the Mayor can address the immediate 2021 filing period (which ends on March 1) with a Mayoral Emergency Executive Order to permit an interim procedural change. “Immediate suspension of the requirement that applicants appear before a notary to verify their applications is necessary this year to simplify the application process and reduce the threat COVID-19 poses to the health and welfare of taxpayers seeking property tax relief and the person performing notary services.”

LETTER REQUESTING MAYORAL EMERGENCY EXECUTIVE ORDER – January 20, 2021

UPDATES

Mayor Issued Emergency Executive Order No. 181 – February 11, 2021

Legislation Introduced as Int. 2412-2021 – October 7, 2021

REPORT

REPORT ON LEGISLATION BY THE
CONDEMNATION AND TAX CERTIORARI COMMITTEE

PROPOSED AMENDMENT TO NEW YORK CITY CHARTER SECTIONS 163 AND 164-A TO SIMPLIFY THE APPLICATION PROCESS TO CORRECT PROPERTY TAX ASSESSMENTS AT THE CITY TAX COMMISSION

 

The New York City Bar Association’s Condemnation and Tax Certiorari Committee supports amendments to the New York City Charter to update a procedural aspect of applying to the New York City Tax Commission for property tax assessment relief.  The change proposed is to allow Tax Commission applications to be “certified” instead of their being “duly verified.”

This report presents the context of the application process, historical background of provisions requiring applications to be duly verified, existing Tax Commission protections of the integrity of the assessment review process, parallel provisions for assessment review applications in the rest of New York State, relevant considerations in State law, and policy arguments in favor of the proposed amendments. The text of the proposed amendments is appended to this report.

The assessment review process administered by the Tax Commission is an important element of the City’s administration of real property taxes.  The Committee supports all necessary measures to preserve its integrity and effectiveness.  We would not make this proposal if it were understood that the change would weaken that important underpinning of the process. The reasons why the public interest would be advanced by changing verification to certification for assessment review applications are, in brief:

  • Appearing before a notary to verify an application is a substantial obstacle for many taxpayers who lack ready access to a notary because there is a short time window to file applications by March 1 after publication of tentative tax assessments January 15 each year.
  • Failure to duly verify an application is a jurisdictional defect that bars tax relief completely for one year at the Tax Commission and in court, irrespective of how accurate the facts presented and meritorious the claims.
  • State law applicable to all other local assessing jurisdictions removed the requirement for verification in 1978 and now allows certification. Only New York City taxpayers must verify applications to obtain assessment review in the State.
  • The City Department of Finance in its Real Property Income and Expense (“RPIE”) property valuation data reporting process, akin to the process of reporting by applicants in Tax Commission assessment review, allows certification and does not require verification of required property information.
  • To the extent it prevents taxpayers from presenting meritorious claims, the verification requirement impedes the full and proper exercise of the Tax Commission’s mandate to correct assessments for the benefit of taxpayers facing over-taxation, provide due process, and ensure fairness in the administration of the property tax system.
  • As a deterrent to potential applicant misrepresentation, criminal law punishes false written statements that are certified equally effectively as verified statements.
  • Swearing before a notary in signing a written form is a formality of less significance to people in our secular world than historically, and so is an unreliable shield for ensuring integrity of the Tax Commission process.
  • Verification is superfluous in preserving the integrity of the review process because the Tax Commission’s other evidentiary and procedural safeguards work effectively.

I.  THE FUNCTION OF THE CITY TAX COMMISSION

The Tax Commission is the agency of City government responsible for reviewing and correcting property tax assessments set by the City Department of Finance. The Tax Commission’s 2019 Annual Report describes its purpose, as follows:[1]

In addition to providing property owners an independent forum for review of their property tax assessments, the Tax Commission helps the City maintain the integrity of the property tax assessment rolls, the sound and equitable allocation of the property tax burden, and promotes public confidence in government and the tax system. A fair and efficient review process is essential to reducing costly litigation of assessment disputes.

In 2019, the Tax Commission received 57,021 applications, covering 83.4% of the total 2019/20 assessed value in the City.  The Tax Commission conducted substantive hearings on 31,211 applications, on which it made 10,577 offers to reduce assessed values, just 18.5% of the total, and denied reductions or other relief on the remainder.[2] 

An application is necessary to initiate an assessment review.  The City Charter requires applications to the Tax Commission for review of tax assessments for properties other than one-, two-, and three-family homes, residentially-zoned vacant land outside Manhattan, and some town-house condominiums, which are classified in tax class 1, to be “duly verified.”[3]  Before an application can be filed as valid, the applicant, or other authorized person with personal knowledge of the property, must sign a paper application form before a notary, and the notary must have the signer swear or affirm that the contents of the application are true.

The Department of Finance establishes property tax assessments annually.  Assessments must be challenged each year to obtain review and correction.  Tentative assessments are published on January 15.  There are two stages to the review process: administrative review at the Tax Commission and judicial review in State Supreme Court.  An application for administrative review must be filed by March 1.  The time period between the publication of the tentative assessment roll on January 15 and the deadline for filing applications on March 1 is short.  This six-week time window is referred to in the applicable Charter provision as “the time that the books of annual record of the assessed valuation of real estate are open for public inspection.”

II.  THE CHARTER REQUIRES APPLICATIONS TO BE “DULY VERIFIED”

An application for correction of an assessment initiates the Tax Commission review process.  Charter §163(b) states:

During the time that the books of annual record of the assessed valuation of real estate are open for public inspection, any person or corporation claiming to be aggrieved by the assessed valuation of real estate may apply for correction of such assessment. Such application shall be duly verified by a person having personal knowledge of the facts stated therein….

This requirement was adopted in 1961, effective January 1, 1963.  It applies to applications for correction of assessments of all commercial properties, residential properties with four or more units, and utility properties.

Charter §164-a, which provides for filing before March 25 of required income and expense statements in support of an application on properties whose assessed value exceeds $750,000, also requires verification, as follows, in pertinent part:

In the event that the statement of income and expenses is not filed as part of the application, such statement, when duly verified shall be filed prior to the twenty-fifth day of March.


III.  FAILURE TO DULY VERIFY AN APPLICATION BARS TAX RELIEF COMPLETELY FOR ONE YEAR

Exhaustion of the opportunity for administrative review is a pre-requisite for commencement of a petition in Court for judicial review of each year’s assessment. The two-stage assessment review process is the sole remedy for taxpayers to obtain correction of assessed values on which property taxes are computed.  Notarization before filing poses an essential element of the process because a defective application bars administrative review and access to the courts. The Tax Commission denies review on the merits to unverified applications and marks them as dismissed in its records as jurisdictionally defective.

 Tax Commission Rules, 21 RCNY, §3-02, incudes verification as one of the jurisdictional requirements for applications:

(a)    Jurisdiction.

(1) An application that lacks one or more jurisdictional requirements set forth in subdivisions (b) through (m) of this section shall be dismissed.

(2)   An application dismissed for lack of jurisdiction is void.

(3)   The Tax Commission may review applications for jurisdictional defects on its own initiative.

(4)   Jurisdiction is determined on the facts existing when an application is filed, except when an application is rendered moot by subsequent action of the Department of Finance.

(5)   Jurisdictional defects are incurable after the time for filing has expired.

* * *

(h)   An application shall be verified or certified upon personal knowledge.

(1)   An application for a tax class two, three, or four property shall be verified by the applicant, the applicant’s fiduciary, a condominium board of managers, or an authorized agent.

(2)   A person who signs an application for a tax class two, three, or four property shall appear and acknowledge his or her signature before a notary public or other person authorized to administer oaths.

(3)   An application for a tax class one property shall be certified.

The number of dismissals for defective applications reported by the Tax Commission is small, but its count does not include applications not filed at all because they do not satisfy this or other jurisdictional requirements.  The governing statute, Real Property Tax Law (“RPTL”) §706, states a petition must “show that a complaint was made in due time.”  The City’s position is that the Charter requirement that applications be “duly verified” is a non-curable and non-waivable jurisdictional defect that voids the application and bars a petition in court.  Thus, the technicality of verification must be satisfied before the application filing deadline.  Not reaching a notary to sign and verify the application in time completely denies a taxpayer any chance for escaping a year’s over-assessment, irrespective of how meritorious the claims of assessment error.

IV.  FORMER CHARTERS DID NOT REQUIRE APPLICATIONS TO BE UNDER OATH UNTIL 1936

The requirement that applications be verified was not in the first Charter of the Greater City of New York (L.1897, c. 378).  Charter §895 provided, in pertinent part:

During the time that the books are open to public inspection as aforesaid, application may be made by any person or corporation claiming to be aggrieved by the assessed valuation of real or personal estate, to have the same corrected.  If such application be made in relation to the assessed valuation of real estate, it must be made in writing, stating the ground of objection thereto.   The board of taxes and assessments shall examine into the complaint, as herein provided, and if in their judgment the assessment is erroneous they shall cause the same to be corrected.

The 1901 Amended Charter left §895 unchanged.  Amendment to the Charter, by State legislation (L. 1935, c. 713), again did not impose a verification requirement.  Renumbered Charter §904 provided, in pertinent part:

During the time that the books of annual record of the assessed valuation of real estate are open for public inspection [January 15 to March 1], any person or corporation claiming to be aggrieved by the assessed valuation, of real estate, may apply for correction of such assessment.  Such application shall be made in writing and shall specify clearly the objection thereto and the grounds for such objection.

The 1936 Charter, effective January 1, 1938, marks the appearance of a requirement that the application be “in writing under oath.”  Charter §163 provided, in pertinent part:

During the time that the books of annual record of the assessed valuation of real estate are open for public inspection, any person or corporation claiming to be aggrieved by the assessed valuation of real estate may apply for correction of such assessment. Such application shall be made in writing under oath and shall specify clearly the objection thereto and the grounds for such objection.


V.  APPLICATIONS FOR ONE CLASS OF PROPERTY ARE EXEMPT FROM VERIFICATION

In contrast to applications for review of City property tax assessments in tax classes 2, 3 and 4, tax class 1 applications need only be certified, not verified.  The property’s description, not its value, determines its tax class.  Some tax class 1 properties are of greater value than some smaller properties in tax classes 2, 3 or 4. Charter §164-b(d) requires applicants to state:

I certify that all statements made on this application … are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief and I understand that the making of any willful false statement of material fact herein will subject me to the provisions of the penal law relevant to the making and filing of false statements.

As mentioned above, Rule §3-02(3) provides: “An application for a tax class one property shall be certified.”

VI.  TAX COMMISSION RULES AND APPLICATION FORMS FOR TAX CLASSES 2, 3 AND 4

Pursuant to Rule §3-02(2), text of a verification is incorporated in printed tax class 2, 3 and 4 application forms, as follows:

OATH

I have read this entire application before signing below, including all instructions, whether on this form or on another. I am personally responsible for the accuracy of the information provided on this application and on any attachments and I certify that all such information is true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief. I also understand that such information is subject to verification, is being relied upon by the City of New York and that the making of any willfully false statement of material fact on this application or any attachments will subject me to the provisions of the penal law relevant to the making and filing of false statements.

Formally, the oath section of the Tax Commission application includes a jurat. Penal Code §210.00 defines “jurat” as “a clause wherein an attesting officer certifies, among other matters, that the subscriber has appeared before him and sworn to the truth of the contents thereof.” The application form directs that the signer “must appear and acknowledge the signature before a notary” and the notary must sign that the oath was “Sworn to before me.”  As provided by CPLR §2309(b), an oath or affirmation shall be administered in a form calculated to awaken the conscience and impress the mind of the person taking it in accordance with his religious or ethical beliefs.”  It is noted that Practice Commentary on §2309(b) by Patrick Connors in the McKinney’s CPLR volume observes, “The form of oath or affirmation is left flexible, in tacit acknowledgment of constitutional objections that lie today against forms with religious content.” Beyond the swearing under oath, as seen above, the oath text incorporates additional cautions, notices and warnings.

VII.  PENAL LAW PUNISHES FALSE STATEMENTS EVEN WITHOUT OATHS BEFORE A NOTARY

The additional cautions in the oath section of applications are significant because they provide a basis, apart from swearing or affirming before a notary, for penalizing applicants’ material misrepresentations.

Penal Code §210.45 penalizes false statements in forms and applications to governmental agencies.  Section 210.45, a Class A Misdemeanor, punishes a “false written statement,” as follows:

A person is guilty of making a punishable false written statement when he knowingly makes a false statement, which he does not believe to be true, in a written instrument bearing a legally authorized form notice to the effect that false statements made therein are punishable.

Practice Commentary in the McKinney’s volume of the Penal Law states the following on the legislative history of §210.45:

The crime [of making a false written statement] was designed to “provide administrative and other government agencies with a convenient method, in connection with applications and other documents submitted to them, of demanding the truth upon pain of criminal sanctions without resort to the cumbersome procedure of requiring oaths before notaries.” Staff Notes of the Commission on Revision of the Penal Law, McKinney’s Special Pamphlet (1964), p. 376.  Additionally, enactment of penalties for making an apparently false statement (§210.35 and §210.40) “stemmed from a finding that perjury prosecutions based upon notarized instruments frequently failed because the notary would testify that, the jurat notwithstanding, he or she had not administered an oath or simply did not recall the matter.”

Donnino, William, Practice Commentary, McKinney’s Cons. Laws of NY, Penal Law §210.45 (2010, page 376).

In other words, the jurat proved unhelpful in Court in penalizing false statements due to the technical requirements for administering oaths.

So, the Tax Commission can rely on the certification and reliance warnings in the oath portions of its forms to deter and punish false information to the same extent as verification.  Swearing before a notary is unnecessary to penalize false statements in Tax Commission applications, since the criminal law applies to false verified and certified statements equally well.  To the extent the integrity of the process requires criminal deterrence, certification suffices.

VIII.  NOTARIZING APPLICATIONS IS AN OBSTACLE TO OBTAINING TAX RELIEF AND INEFFECTIVE TO DETER FALSE STATEMENTS

With only six weeks to learn of the current year’s tentative assessment after January 15 before an application must be prepared and filed, taxpayers who do not have a notary as one of their office staff are significantly inconvenienced by the need to jump this procedural hurdle before the filing deadline. This obstacle to making a valid filing is compounded in 2021 by public health concerns.

The additional step of having a notary also sign the application form for verification is inconsequential in discouraging misrepresentation but is a substantial impediment for many taxpayers to getting their application completed and filed timely.  Lack of ready access to a notary is an increasing factor, even aside from the current pandemic, because many people who wish to seek tax reductions are not resident in the City.

It is recognized that while a disaster emergency continues, pursuant to Executive Order 202.7 and subsequent extensions, audio-video notarization is authorized as an alternative provided various conditions are met. The signer must present valid photo ID to the Notary during the video conference; the video conference must allow for direct interaction between the person and the Notary; the person must be physically situated in the State of New York; the person must transmit by fax or electronic means a legible copy of the signed document directly to the Notary on the same date it was signed; the Notary may notarize the transmitted copy of the document and transmit the same back to the person; and the Notary may repeat the notarization of the original signed document as of the date of execution provided the Notary receives such original signed document together with the electronically notarized copy within thirty days after the date of execution.

This alternative is an extremely cumbersome process, which is a suitable accommodation in litigation involving a discrete dispute, not administrative proceedings involving 57,000 separate applications which must be prepared, transmitted, signed, returned to counsel and filed within a short six-week period. Moreover, the application process must be performed each year since City property tax assessments are established annually.  The video alternative is only available so long as the Governor’s directive remains in effect, which it can be foreseen will end in the coming year.  So, the procedural barrier to taxpayer access to assessment review remains unresolved by this limited option.

Historically, the primary justification in favor of notarization of assessment review applications has been that a verified statement is more reliably truthful than it would be without the extra step of appearing before a notary to swear or affirm. But, for individuals today, the extra step of swearing before a notary no longer registers as carrying additional consequences for misrepresentation in the realm of religion or ethical values.  Certification serves as an equally effective deterrent.

IX.  EXTENSIVE EVIDENTIARY SAFEGUARDS AGAINST FALSE STATEMENTS ARE EFFECTIVE

In practice, the Tax Commission does not rely on notarizing application forms as either a primary or significant secondary means to prevent false statements on applications.  It has many other more than sufficient safeguards that provide practical and effective protection for the integrity of the process, deterrents to taxpayer misrepresentation or abuse, and remedies therefor.  With these more effective safeguards already in place, amending the Charter to require that applications be certified instead of verified will not compromise the integrity of the review process.

Filing an application is just the start of the Tax Commission’s process of review which leads to a determination to dismiss an application as invalid, confirm an assessment as not having been proved to be erroneous, or grant relief, as requested in whole or in part. In addition to basic information in applications, the assessment review process entails submission of supplemental information of physical improvements and purchase prices and income and expense schedules, which independent certified public accountants must certify for properties assessed at $5,000,000 or more.  Even for the small minority of applications on which a hearing is not requested and are reviewed on just the papers submitted before the filing deadline, the facts presented in the application are weighed by an assigned hearing officer and considered based on information publicly available in print and online, data compiled by the Tax Commission, and their experience and expertise.  The Tax Commission 2019 Annual Report explains: “Under applicable case law, the assessment set by the Department of Finance is presumed to be correct. The burden is on the applicant to offer substantial evidence to overcome the presumption and then to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the assessment should be reduced or otherwise corrected.”[4]

Tax Commission’s standard procedure for determining property valuation relies on much more than formal verification in judging the credibility of applicants’ statements. As stated by the 2019 Annual Report:[5]

In preparation for the hearing, the hearing officer reviews the current year’s application, financial or other information submitted, applications submitted in past years and any other relevant information. At the hearing, the applicant or representative is expected to be prepared to explain any anomalies in the application and accompanying documents, especially discrepancies between the current year’s application and prior applications filed. At the applicant’s request, the Tax Commission will receive sworn oral testimony by the owner (or another person with relevant knowledge) in support of the claims made on the application. Formal rules of evidence do not apply.

 

In making a determination on an application, the hearing officer considers all relevant information and documents presented, along with any information from the Department of Finance and any facts of which the Tax Commission properly may take administrative notice. The accepted methodologies for valuing real estate, as well as those set by law, use sales of comparable properties, income generated by the property or the cost of reproducing the property. To aid in determining the market values of properties, the Tax Commission staff does market research and monitoring, and compiles reference materials that are supplemented and updated regularly. The Tax Commission also reviews documents and articles regarding the real estate industry, such as recent sales and leasing activity reports, and maintains in its files materials relevant to specific properties. Finally, Tax Commission assessors perform exterior and/or interior field inspections of subject properties when necessary, or make referrals to the Department of Finance for inspection.

 

The Tax Commission makes instructions available for taxpayers on how to apply for assessment review and on what is expected of them.  Form TC600, “How to Appeal a Tentative Assessment,” explicitly warns applicants about the adverse consequence of misrepresentation:[6]

 

False statements and non-disclosure. False statements on an application and failure to timely make required disclosures are against the law. Failure to timely make required disclosures or to correct misinformation will result in confirmation of the assessment under review, or withdrawal or revocation of an offer of assessment relief. Representatives filing false statements or failing to make timely disclosures may be subject to sanctions under the Tax Commission Rules (21 RCNY §2-02.)

By signing Tax Commission forms, the signer states that he or she has read the forms before signing them, affirms the truth of the statements made, including any statements on attachments or preprinted on the forms, even if made or inserted without the signer’s knowledge, and understands that false filings are subject to all applicable civil and criminal penalties. (emphasis in the original).


Although taxpayers may represent themselves at the Tax Commission, about 98% of applicants were represented by a lawyer or a non-attorney professional in 2019.  Owners of class one properties represented themselves about 31.5% of the time.

Tax Commission Form TC600A, Supplemental Instructions for Practitioners in 2020/21, instructs representatives of taxpayers appearing at the Tax Commission as follows as to the need and means to explain discrepant facts about the property and its income and expenses:[7]

Required substantiation in 2020. Submit substantiation to explain the following 13 items:

1. Operating loss

2. More than 10% decrease in gross income

3. Continuing vacancy of 15% or more

4. Decrease or increase in operating expenses of 15% or more over the previous year’s expenses.

5. Average monthly rent per apartment $650 or less, or $850 or less per apartment in Manhattan on or south of 110th Street.

6. Repairs and maintenance higher than 15% of gross rent

7. More than a 15 percentage point increase in vacancy

8. Residential rent roll times 12 less than total residential income

9. Residential rent roll times 12 110% or more of total residential income

10. Residential rent roll times 12 equals precisely total residential income

11. Wages higher than normal for the type of property or the level of income

12. Total commercial rent substantially below market rental levels

13. Apparent inconsistency between RPIE and TCIE information or in the property’s owner-occupied status.

How to substantiate these items.

Item 1. State the specific circumstances causing the operating loss, such as the number of tenants, time period and extent of vacancies, unusual expenses, or physical conditions.

Items 2, 3, 4, 7, 12, 13. State specifics that would explain the situation.

Items 5, 8, 9 and 10. Submit a copy of the December 2019 or January 2020 rent roll or the 2020 DHCR filing for the building. Tenants, apartment numbers, apartment rents and a total of the month’s rent income must be stated.

Item 11. Submit a weekly payroll statement from January 2020 with job descriptions, employee names, total gross salary and benefits. Social security numbers should be crossed out on any documentation submitted.

Item 6. Submit an itemized breakdown of repair and maintenance costs.

Substantiation must be either: (b) written on Form TC159, or (c) attached to Form TC159. See below for details on when substantiation for the previous year is required. Failure to submit substantiation may result in a denial of review of the application.

In sum, the truthfulness of information and reliability of records submitted to the Tax Commission are evaluated by experienced and knowledgeable hearing officers in the context of market data and the specific physical and financial history of the property under review.  Inconsistencies in income and expenses from year to year and other anomalies must be clearly explained.   The taxpayer’s representations about the property and its income history are not determinative.  The experience of any one property is evaluated in relation to the status of similar properties in the real estate market.  Valuation for property tax assessment rests on appraisal judgment, which is guided, but not controlled, by the income and expenses and other data reported by taxpayers about their specific property.

Where warranted, Charter §164(a) empowers the Tax Commission to compel live testimony under oath: “[T]he tax commission may … act upon applications, compel the attendance of witnesses, administer oaths or affirmations and examine applicants and other witnesses under oath.”[8]  TC Rule §4-11(f) and (g) empower the Tax Commission to compel applicants to corroborate information submitted, audit financial records, submit to inspection of the property and thereby expose falsehoods were an applicant to misrepresent. Compelled testimony under oath has not occurred for decades; frequently, the power to administer oaths is invoked when a taxpayer or other witness appears at their initiative before a hearing officer to present facts about the property in issue and argue for relief.

Even after a hearing officer determines that the application has been substantiated, the Tax Commission further screens the outcome, providing more protection for the integrity and soundness of the process.  As described in the 2019 Annual Report:[9]

All offers of reduction of $50,000 or more are subject to review and approval by the President of the Tax Commission. The Tax Commission also has an internal quality control auditing process. A number of applications for which the hearing officer has proposed an offer of reduction are systematically identified using predetermined criteria as well as a stratified random sample. Selected applications are subject to reexamination and a revised determination may be made. On occasion, an offer is withdrawn.

And, TC Rule §4-12(k) authorizes revocation of an offer of reduction upon discovery that it was based on misrepresentation and grants six years to discover such misrepresentation.  The revocation authority provides further deterrence against misrepresentation and another remedy for recouping any tax revenue wrongly obtained on false statements.

X.  RULES FOR REPRESENTATIVES FURTHER PROTECT THE INTEGRITY OF THE PROCESS

In addition to imposing explicit evidentiary standards to preserve integrity and ensure sound determinations, the Tax Commission requires that representatives register before applications are filed by their clients and agree to adhere to exacting standards of conduct (the text of the relevant Tax Commission Rule § 2-02 is attached as Appendix B). Failure to exercise due diligence by representatives in observing these rules can lead to public censure and suspension from practice at the Tax Commission. The power to enforce the standards is again another layer of protection for the integrity of the process of assessment review, since 98% of applications are filed by professional representatives for taxpayers.

The Tax Commission mandate in Rules §2.02(q), of annual registration and re-registration for representatives, is implemented in TC Form 610.  Form 610 “makes explicit what constitutes exercising due diligence for representatives appearing before the Tax Commission” and is acknowledgment that the representative has “read our rules and instructions recently and agree[s] to observe them to the best of [his or her] ability.”  TC Form 600A.

These rules governing representatives who seek to continue to file applications for their clients and appear at the agency and the powers granted to the Tax Commission to enforce them are additional deterrents and remedies against false statements.

XI.  STATE LAW DOES NOT MANDATE VERIFICATION OF ASSESSMENT REVIEW APPLICATIONS

The Charter controls the assessment review process in the City.  RPTL article 5, governs property tax assessment administrative review procedure in New York State localities outside the City.  RPTL §524(3) requires that an applicant for assessment review certify the facts in the application, as follows in pertinent part:

I certify that all statements made on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief and I understand that the making of any willful false statement of material fact herein will subject me to the provisions of the penal law relevant to the making and filing of false instruments.

Accordingly, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, Office of Real Property Tax Services, publishes standard form RP-524, “Complaint on Real Property Assessment” for use by taxpayers throughout the State.  Taxpayers must sign and date Part Five: Certification, which states:

I certify that all statements made on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief, and I understand that the making of any willful false statement of material fact herein will subject me to the provisions of the penal law relevant to the making and filing of false instruments.

False statements on unverified administrative complaints outside the City are subject to criminal penalties.  The history of the certification requirement for assessment review complaints is noteworthy.  Vol. 9, No. 15, of Opinions of Counsel of the State Board of Equalization and Assessment states in an illuminating footnote:

RPTL, §524(3) was added by chapter 714 of the Laws of 1982 and merely recodifies provisions previously located in RPTL, §512(1) (added L.1958, c.959 and amended through L.1982, c.620).  Prior to 1978, RPTL, §512(1) and its predecessor statutes (former Tax Law, §37, added L.1909, c.62; renumbered §27, L.1933, c.470; and repealed L.1958, c.959) required complaints in relation to assessments to be made under oath.  Chapter 193 of the Laws of 1977 deleted the requirement that complaints be made under oath in favor of the existing certification requirement.  The sponsor’s memorandum for the bill enacted as chapter 193 states in part that:

The requirement that taxpayers’ complaints relative to their assessments be made under oath has been used in some jurisdictions to deprive taxpayers of administrative review.  Paragraph (b) of subdivision 2 of section 1524 of the Real Property Tax Law empowers the board of assessment review to administer oaths. However, many taxpayers do not personally appear on grievance day, and if they have not verified their complaint, their grievances may be summarily dismissed. In many rural areas, there is a lack of readily available notaries public making it difficult for taxpayers to get their complaints verified.  This bill replaces the existing verification requirement with the certification set forth above.  This notice seems adequate to inform taxpayers of the consequences of filing a false complaint to the board of assessment review.

8 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 34 (1983) also supports the conclusion that certification is sufficient basis for criminal prosecution in instances of misrepresentation:

The certification on the complaint form (EA–524) puts the signer on notice that willful false statements therein will subject that person to “the provisions of the Penal Law relevant to the making and filing of false instruments.” Section 175.00(3) of the Penal Law defines a “written instrument” as “any instrument or article containing written or printed matter … used for the purpose of … conveying or recording information … which is capable of being used to the advantage or disadvantage of some person.” A completed assessment complaint form in which a property owner is seeking a reduced assessment would seem to satisfy this definition.

The same penalties for false statements apply within the City.  The Charter and Tax Commission Rules for verification retain an extra, archaic layer of formality on assessment review applications.  Since the Penal Code includes penalties for all false written statements on legally authorized forms without verification, the extra hurdle of swearing before a notary is unnecessary to ensure the integrity of the process.

In criminal procedure, a process with potentially grave consequences, certification can serve as the equivalent of verification. Criminal Procedure Law §100.30(1)(d) authorizes initiation of a criminal prosecution by certification, on par with a statement under oath, as follows:

1. An information, a misdemeanor complaint, a felony complaint, a supporting deposition, and proof of service of a supporting deposition may be verified in any of the following manners:

(a) Such instrument may be sworn to before the court with which it is filed.

(b) Such instrument may be sworn to before a desk officer in charge at a police station or police headquarters or any of his superior officers.

(c) Where such instrument is filed by any public servant following the issuance and service of an appearance ticket, and where by express provision of law another designated public servant is authorized to administer the oath with respect to such instrument, it may be sworn to before such public servant.

(d) Such instrument may bear a form notice that false statements made therein are punishable as a class A misdemeanor pursuant to section 210.45 of the penal law, and such form notice together with the subscription of the deponent constitute a verification of the instrument.

(e) Such instrument may be sworn to before a notary public.

As provided in subdivision (1)(d), the form notice that false statements are punishable as a crime, refers to Penal Law §210.45.  A false certification becomes punishable when it is made in a written instrument bearing a “legally authorized” notice.  This notice is included in the Finance RPIE form and in the proposed Charter amendments.

XII.  NASSAU COUNTY ASSESSMENT REVIEW REQUIRES CERTIFICATION

State statute grants the City status as a “special assessing unit,” which enables it to classify real property in four classes and set tax rates for each class.[10] Nassau County has the second largest number of parcels on its assessment rolls in the State, after the City, and is the only other special assessing district.  Although RPTL §523-b(6) requires verification, Nassau County’s Assessment Review Commission does not require verification of applications for assessment review.  In Nassau County Assessment Review Commission Form AR1 the taxpayer must certify the application by signing the following statement:

I CERTIFY that all statements made in this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief and I understand that the making of any willful false statements of material fact herein will subject me to the provisions of the Penal Law relevant to the making and filing of false instruments.

XIII.  CERTIFICATION OF RPIES

The Department of Finance (“Finance”) does not require verification in administering the RPIE law.  RPIEs are online statements of income and expense, rent rolls with detailed lease information, and physical descriptions of properties which the Department of Finance relies on establishing the assessments published the following January 15.  Finance only requires that RPIE filings be certified.  Administrative Code §11-208.1 requires the following declaration to be contained in RPIEs:

I certify that all information contained in this statement is true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief.  I understand that the willful making of any false statement of material fact herein will subject me to the provisions of law relevant to the making and filing of false instruments and will render this statement null and void.

Justification for simplifying the Tax Commission application filing process to match the RPIE filings of the Department of Finance is plain.  The two agencies perform the function of property valuation, albeit at different stages of the annual cycle of assessment.

XIV.  CONCLUSION

The requirement for verification before a notary impedes the exercise of the Tax Commission’s delegated authority to correct assessments for the benefit of taxpayers facing over-assessment and provide them a fair opportunity to obtain relief from excessive or otherwise erroneous real property taxation. Since verification adds no genuine protection to the integrity of the review process beyond that offered by certification, it unnecessarily burdens taxpayers’ access to assessment review and hinders the City in fully achieving the fair administration of property tax assessments. To that end, the Charter should be amended in a way that will help the Tax Commission better perform its mission.  There is an important public interest in lifting undue obstacles to taxpayers’ efforts to obtain correction of assessment errors. Appearing before a notary has proven to be particularly troublesome currently but is a technical formality that taxpayers, who have a due process right to have the government hear their requests for relief from erroneous assessments, should be spared.

The notary requirement differs from State law applicable to all other local assessing jurisdictions and law governing the Department of Finance on RPIE filings, a property valuation process parallel to Tax Commission assessment review.  Like other assessment review agencies governed by RPTL article 5, including neighboring Nassau County, and Finance for RPIEs, which rely on certification of facts stated in assessment complaints and RPIE filings, the Tax Commission can fully rely on criminal penalties for false written statements along with the many warnings in its instructions and other readily available deterrents to falsehood in its Rules to ensure truthfulness.  It is unfair to City taxpayers that only they must verify assessment review applications, while just beyond the City limits taxpayers do not have to go to a notary to file the same kind of application.  Tax Commission reliance on certification, together with its evidentiary and procedural safeguards already in effect, and the sanctions for failure to exercise due diligence on professional representatives, will maintain the integrity of the review process and better enable taxpayers to obtain deserved tax relief.

We urge amending the Charter to replace verification of applications with certification.

Condemnation and Tax Certiorari Committee
Reed Schneider, Chair

January 2021

APPENDIX A

PROPOSED CHARTER AMENDMENTS

New language is underlined; language proposed to be removed is shown [between Brackets].

Charter Section 163. Application for correction of assessment for taxation.

b.   During the time that the books of annual records of the assessed valuation of real estate are open for public inspection, any person or corporation claiming to be aggrieved by the assessed valuation of real estate may apply for correction of such assessment. Such application shall be [duly verified] certified by a person having personal knowledge of the facts stated therein, provided that if the application is signed by someone other than the person or an officer of the corporation claiming to be aggrieved, the application must be accompanied by a duly executed power of attorney as prescribed by the rules and regulations of the tax commission. The application shall contain the following sentence: “I certify that all statements made on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief and I understand that the making of any willful false statement of material fact herein will subject me to the provisions of the penal law relevant to the making and filing of false instruments”.

Charter Section 164-a. Procedure on application for correction of an assessment of seven hundred fifty thousand dollars or more.

a.       Notwithstanding any other provision of this charter or the administrative code, the tax commission may itself or by a commissioner or assessor authorized by the commission act upon applications for correction of an assessment of real property assessed at seven hundred fifty thousand dollars or more between the first day of February and the first day of September. Any such application shall specify all income received or accrued and all expenses paid or incurred in the operation of the property during the calendar year preceding the date of application, or during the applicant’s last fiscal year preceding the date of the application if the applicant’s books and records are maintained on a fiscal year basis for federal income tax purposes which ends six months or more prior to the date of application, or during any part of such calendar or fiscal year in which the property was operated by the applicant, except that where the applicant has not operated the property and is without knowledge of the income and expenses of the operation, it shall [state] certify such facts [under oath] in lieu thereof. In the event that the statement of income and expenses is not filed as part of the application, such certified statement [, when duly verified,] shall be filed prior to the twenty-fifth day of March. Such statement shall also contain the following sentence: “I certify that all statements made herein are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief and I understand that the making of any willful false statement of material fact herein will subject me to the provisions of the penal law relevant to the making and filing of false instruments”.

 

APPENDIX B

TC Rule § 2-02 Standards of Conduct and Integrity for Representatives and Self-Represented Applicants.

(a)         Representatives and self-represented applicants shall observe in good faith the law governing the administrative review of assessments, this title, and forms and instructions.

(b)        Representatives and self-represented applicants shall exercise due diligence in:

(1)   learning and observing applicable statutes, rules, and instructions governing the disposition of applications before the Tax Commission;

(2)   adhering to schedules for appearances;

(3)   preparing or assisting in the preparation of, approving, and filing forms, documents, and other papers relating to applications; and

(4)   determining whether their oral and written arguments and representations to the Tax Commission are correct.

(c)         A representative who knows or has reason to believe that an applicant has made a factual error in or omission from an application or other document submitted to the Tax Commission shall advise the applicant promptly of such error or omission. The representative shall urge the applicant to correct the error and promptly submit the corrected information. If the applicant refuses to do so, the representative shall withdraw from representation regarding the application where continued representation would violate this section or the applicable code or rules of professional conduct prescribed for the representative’s profession.

(d)        Representatives and self-represented applicants shall not file an application, submit a document, or present testimony or other evidence that is obviously false or that the representative or applicant knows or has reason to believe is false or fraudulent or contains false information.

(e)         Representatives and self-represented applicants shall not make any representation or fail to disclose any fact in any situation where such representative or applicant knows or has reason to know such representation or failure to disclose will mislead the Tax Commission.

(f)         Representatives and self-represented applicants shall not present a demand or an opinion of fact or law to the Tax Commission at a hearing unless the representative or applicant holds it in good faith and can support it on reasonable grounds.

(g)        An application shall not advance a claim unwarranted under existing law, unless supported by a good faith argument for extension, modification or reversal of existing law.

(h)        A representative shall not sign an application in the name of the applicant. A representative signing an application pursuant to a written power of attorney must sign in the representative’s own name.

(i)          Representatives and self-represented applicants shall exercise due diligence in ascertaining and reporting to the Tax Commission transactions concerning the property occurring after an application is filed until the application is determined or an offer (if any) is accepted, whichever occurs later. Such transactions include: (1) any transfer of the property under review; (2) any transfer of an ownership interest in the property; or (3) the execution of a contract to transfer the property.

(j)          Representatives and self-represented applicants shall not request hearings on applications which in the exercise of due diligence and good faith they know are ineligible for review pursuant to law or this title.

(k)        Representatives and self-represented applicants shall not attempt to initiate conversations or correspondence about particular cases with the hearing officer before or after the hearing. At the hearing, representatives and self-represented applicants shall discuss the scheduled matters only. Representatives and self-represented applicants shall not telephone or write the hearing officer or other employees of the Tax Commission before or after the hearing with additional argument or information. Unless directed by the hearing officer, after the hearing additional material or argument shall not be submitted to supplement an application. After a hearing, correspondence on particular applications, if any, shall be addressed to the Director of Appraisal and Hearings of the Tax Commission.

(l)          Upon the request of the Tax Commission, representatives and self-represented applicants shall make inquiry, obtain information, check facts about use, occupancy or physical description of the property under review, or resolve any factual discrepancies arising from an application. If such information is privileged or impossible to furnish, the representative or self-represented applicant can submit, on or before the date such information is due, a written statement explaining why the information cannot be provided.

(m)      Before commencing or causing to be commenced assessment review proceedings in court, representatives and self-represented applicants shall confirm that an application for review of the assessment was timely filed at the Tax Commission.

(n)        Representatives and self-represented applicants shall not attempt to influence or offer or agree to attempt to influence any hearing officer or employee of the Tax Commission by the use of threats, false accusations, duress or coercion, a promise of advantage, or the bestowing or offer of any gift, favor or thing of value. A representative or self-represented applicant shall report promptly any such acts of which the representative or self-represented applicant is aware to the New York City Department of Investigation.

(o)        Representatives before the Tax Commission shall carry on their representation in accordance with the applicable code or rules of professional conduct prescribed for their profession. The Tax Commission may require a representative to furnish a statement, under oath, detailing the circumstances of the representative’s engagement regarding an application, subject to limits of any applicable evidentiary privilege.

(p)        Representatives shall not engage in contemptuous conduct in practicing before the Tax Commission, including, but not limited to, using abusive language, making false or misleading accusations or statements, either intentionally or negligently, or persistently disregarding Tax Commission rules or written instructions, either intentionally or negligently.

(q)        Before a representative may represent an applicant before the Tax Commission, he or she shall register with the Tax Commission. Such registration shall be on a form prescribed by the Tax Commission and shall include an acknowledgement by the representative of his or her agreement to observe Tax Commission rules and instructions in good faith and with due diligence. Such registration shall be renewed annually and updated in accordance with the instructions of the Tax Commission.

(r)          The Tax Commission may deny or defer review of an application or withdraw an offer affected by a representative’s or applicant’s failure to comply with a rule in this title or a written instruction.

(s)         After providing the representative with notice and an opportunity to be heard, the Tax Commission may suspend for up to five years from practice before the Tax Commission on all or some applications or may censure any representative who fails to comply with a rule in this section. Upon a determination of probable cause that a representative has failed to comply with a rule in this section, the representative may be temporarily suspended pending a final determination of suspension.

(t)          After providing the representative with notice and an opportunity to be heard, the Tax Commission may suspend the representative for up to one year from practice before the Tax Commission on all or some applications or may censure the representative where the representative fails to comply with a written instruction or rule not in this section or to adhere to a schedule for appearance. Upon a determination of probable cause that a representative has failed to comply with a written instruction or rule not in this section or to adhere to a schedule for appearance, the representative may be temporarily suspended pending a final determination of suspension.

(u)        The Tax Commission may publish notice and may notify applicants that it has suspended or censured a representative. Such notice may state the basis of the suspension or censure and identify the applicant, property and representative.

(v)        For representatives who are attorneys:

(1)   the standards of conduct set forth in this section shall apply unless inconsistent with applicable attorney ethical rules;

(2)   subdivisions (s) and (t) of this section as such subdivisions relate to the suspension or temporary suspension of a representative shall not apply; and

(3)   in appropriate cases, the Tax Commission may report to the governing disciplinary authorities any conduct that violates this title and/or applicable attorney ethical rules.

(w)      The Tax Commission may notify the applicant and the applicant’s representative of a determination to deny or defer review of an application for a representative’s failure to comply with a rule in this title or a written instruction and may publish notice of that determination. A published notice may state the basis of the determination and identify the applicant and property. After providing the representative with notice and an opportunity to be heard, a published notice may identify the representative.

 


Footnotes

[1] Tax Commission of the City of New York 2019 Annual Report, at 7, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/taxcommission/downloads/pdf/annual_report19.pdf (all websites last visited Jan. 7, 2021).

[2] Id. at 12.

[3] New York City Charter §163(b).

[4] Supra note 2 at 9.

[5] Id. at 8-9.

[6] Form TC600 at 8, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/taxcommission/downloads/pdf/tc600.pdf.

[7] Form RC600A at 4, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/taxcommission/downloads/pdf/tc600a.pdf.

[8] See Admin Code, §11-228.

[9] Supra note 1 at 10-11.

[10] RPTL, article 18.