Ellen Hoffman, a lawyer for 40 years, earned a JD from New York University School of Law in 1977 and an LLM in Taxation in 1978. She began her career in tax law at a private firm in New York City, when after 11 years, she felt the urge to do something different. Hoffman stumbled upon a posting for a tax attorney position with the New York City Department of Finance and, as Hoffman said, “the rest is history.”
Ellen Hoffman began her presidency at the Tax Commission in June 2015 when her predecessor, Glenn Newman, retired from the position. She served as Acting Director of the Office of Administrative Tax Appeals for two months before she was officially appointed as the President of the Tax Commission by Mayor Bill de Blasio on August 4, 2015, and as the President of the Tax Appeals Tribunal on August 14, 2015.
The Office of Administrative Tax Appeals is the umbrella agency including both the Tax Commission and the Tax Appeals Tribunal. The Tax Commission and the Tax Appeals Tribunal are independent forums responsible for reviewing different types of tax-based decisions made by the Department of Finance. The Tax Commission hears appeals from property owners who challenge real property tax assessments issued by the Department of Finance. The Tax Appeals Tribunal, on the other hand, is the exclusive forum for City taxpayers to appeal taxation determinations made by Finance, other than real property assessments. The Tribunal was created by the New York City Charter and has been in existence only since 1989.
The State Legislature possesses the exclusive power to tax, explained Hoffman, but the Legislature has granted the City specific authority to impose certain taxes. New York City is actually the fourth largest taxing jurisdiction in the United States. “Only the federal government, New York State, and California collect more revenue than New York City,” said Hoffman. City residents are likely familiar with many of these local taxes, such as New York City’s income and real property taxes. Because great power always comes with great responsibility, New York City is also responsible for footing the bill for many of its internal expenses. For example, the City is responsible for most of its public school expenses, street and sewer maintenance, and many other aspects of infrastructure maintenance.
For 16 years prior to her appointment, Hoffman served with the Department of Finance Office of Legal Affairs, where she began as the Director of Tax Law and rose to be the Assistant Commissioner for Tax Law and Conciliations. Hoffman describes tax law as a subject that people either love or hate. Tax law has an intricate and puzzle-like nature, which is “very technical and very statute and rule-driven.”
There is no typical work day at the Tax Commission or the Tax Appeals Tribunal. As agency head, Hoffman has many administrative duties in addition to her substantive responsibilities. At the Tax Commission, Hoffman’s primary role is to make sure the office is running smoothly and that work is completed on time. According to Hoffman, most agencies are not as interactive with the public as the Tax Commission. At the Tribunal, Hoffman finds writing her own legal opinions to be “an incredible amount of work,” but said that the work is immensely satisfying.
To Hoffman, the most rewarding aspect of her position is the opportunity to help people experiencing tax-related issues by answering their questions and explaining their situations clearly to them, and even resolving their problems. Hoffman said that, “people have such a negative view of government in general that they are sometimes pleasantly surprised that the government actually worked for them.”
Hoffman said that she feels very fortunate to have worked initially in the tax department of a medium-sized, private law firm. “You become a better lawyer as you learn more about the broader transactional activity and not just your little area of the law. You also just get more exposure to more interesting things.” Hoffman advises law students interested in pursuing a career in tax law: “Go for an LLM. It takes a very long time to learn a lot of tax law just practicing, and most firms are perfectly willing to hire LLMs. Don’t go for it immediately, but I think it gives you a lot of background.”
Hoffman and her husband are both native New Yorkers. They have an adult daughter who lives and works in the City. In her free time, Hoffman is a tennis player, a novice golfer, and an enthusiastic bird watcher.
Jessica Soultanian-Braunstein ’15 is a Center for New York City Law Fellow at New York Law School