Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Martha E. Stark '86
New York City Finance Commissioner Martha E. Stark, the first African-American woman to serve in this role, leads a 2300-person agency charged with collecting $18 billion in annual tax revenue, maintaining records for more than one million properties, conducting thousands of tax audits and adjudicating more than two million parking tickets each year. Stark also serves as chair of the New York City Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System.
Since her appointment on February 11, 2002, Stark has improved the agency's operations in numerous ways, all in an effort to make NYC Department of Finance more efficient, more effective and more customer friendly. Her achievements include reforming the property valuation process, simplifying the property tax billing process, administering a successful business tax amnesty program, administering the $400 property tax rebate, and launching a program to expand banking services in underserved neighborhoods.
Stark's successful tenure to date builds on work she began at NYC Department of Finance in 1990, when she held several senior management positions during the Dinkins Administration. As the Acting Director of the Conciliations Bureau, she established the unit that mediates business tax disputes. As an Assistant Commissioner, Stark managed the team responsible for answering taxpayer questions and led the Department's effort to educate the public and elected officials about the city's complex tax issues. She was also responsible for a comprehensive analysis of the city's real property tax structure.
In 1993, after three years at the NYC Department of Finance, Stark became a White House Fellow, assigned to the U.S. Department of State. She then served as Director and Deputy Counsel for Policy and Development in the Manhattan Borough President's Office, where she formulated policy recommendations in civil rights, health, education, welfare and other areas, oversaw budget and land use issues, and sat on the New York City Employee Retirement System Investment Committee. During this time Stark also consulted on “The Orphaned Capitol,” an influential Brookings Institution study which recommended ways to restore the fiscal health of District of Columbia. Prior to her appointment as Finance Commissioner, Stark was a portfolio manager at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, where she managed millions of dollars in youth development grants.
In 1998, Stark co-authored a study for the New York University School of Law that analyzed the high cost of building and renovating housing in New York City. She has written extensively about the New York City property tax, and has taught budget and finance courses at Hunter College and business law at Baruch College.
She earned her bachelor's and law degrees from New York University, where she captained the varsity basketball team. She lives in Brooklyn, where she grew up and attended public high school.
Interview with Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Martha E. Stark '86
What is your area of specialization and how did you come to work in this area?
I specialize in tax administration and policy, especially the property tax. After finishing law school, I worked at Cullen and Dykman in Brooklyn. I was assigned to the corporate/tax department of the firm’s practice. Right before one of the associates left, he told us that being assigned property tax work was a sure sign that we should leave the firm because we were not going to make partner. Since I was the only African American person on partnership track at the firm and had been working incredibly hard, I was certain they would not assign the property tax work to me—turned out I was wrong. When the partner in charge came into my office and told me I would be responsible for the property tax practice, I actually started working on my resume. Surprisingly, I ended up falling in love with property tax for a variety of reasons. For one, it combines litigation with numbers and law. Most importantly though, I realized that property tax was the most important tax for local government and that it touched everyone in some way.
You have worked in government, higher education and in the private sector. Is it difficult making the transition between these three worlds?
I have also worked in the not-for-profit sector. The biggest transition from the private sector to the other sectors is the change in salary and benefits. As I understand it, first year associates at Manhattan-based firms can make as much or more than a NYC Commissioner job. Yikes!
It was not hard to make the transition from government, higher education and the not-for-profit sector because they all share in common a strong mission that’s about doing good and serving people.
Though I would love to earn more money, I need to be a part of an organization with a strong mission because that’s what keeps me motivated and excited about work. I have been lucky because I have a pretty good life even though I don’t make as much as my colleagues who work in the private sector.
Describe recent developments in your field. Where do you see this field in 5 years?
There have been lots of changes in the field of tax administration and especially in the property tax arena. In tax administration, so much of what we have to do has been positively enhanced by technological developments. More and more taxpayers are filing returns electronically. It’s easier to ensure that returns are completed correctly because we have almost instantaneous access to data.
The property tax is probably the most important source of revenue for local government, especially for schools. It’s incredibly important that people believe the tax is fair, but people don’t believe it is. That’s in part because the property tax is not linked to income. It’s based on how much a person’s property is worth and given the real estate market, oftentimes the value of a person’s property increases even when his/her income does not.
There will be lots of legislation and court cases I think in the next several years as elected officials and tax administrators try to figure out how to make the property tax palatable and a reliable source of revenue for local government.
What has been your greatest challenge as Finance Commissioner?
My first day on the job, 16 assessors were arrested in one of the biggest bribery cases in New York City’s history. Their actions cost the City several hundred million dollars in lost revenue. The Mayor asked me to do all that I could to restore the public’s confidence in the property tax. I have worked tirelessly to see to it that this doesn’t happen again by trying to make what we do as transparent and fair to the public as possible.
While we have done a lot and people have more confidence in how Finance administers the property tax, there are structural issues that must be addressed. I’m hopeful that in my second term as Commissioner I will be able to completely overhaul the property tax laws. While it’s a third rail issue, I’m confident that I will be able to help people understand why it’s important to make sure the property tax structure is fair and transparent. The funding is essential to local government’s existence.
I have also tried to make my agency a results-based customer service organization. I have been working with a renowned consultant, Public Strategies Group, to develop simple measures of our results and to try to transform the culture. We measure five things—efficiency, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, complier treatment, and voluntary compliance. I believe Finance must do all that it can to get people to pay the right amount on time and to see to it that people believe our revenue system is fair.
What are the skills you use everyday to cut through the bureaucracy of city government to effect positive changes for citizens and businesses?
I am a citizen and I never forget that. I try to think about everything I do through that lens. Perhaps it is that I’m this kid from the housing projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn who never believed that I could be the Finance Commissioner. In every person I serve, in every policy that we adopt, I try to imagine what it will mean for a person like me, what it would mean for my sister, my parents, my friends. And, at the end of the day, I want them to understand and know that they have been treated fairly.
While lots of people in my agency believe that everyone cheats on their taxes and that people who aren’t able to pay parking tickets are bad people, I don’t believe that. I have had financial difficulties in my life and have had to juggle different financial obligations so I know what it’s like. So, I try to ensure that we treat people fairly and don’t think of people as criminals.
I’m also very data-driven and logical. That helps. I am able to pore through data and use that data to make policy.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I have the opportunity to give back to the city that has given me so much. I am blessed and honored to serve New York City and Mayor Bloomberg. I also am pleased to lead a great agency of 2,300 people who want to ensure that people pay the right amount of taxes and fees on time and who are committed to fairness. Each day, every minute I have the opportunity to have an impact on New Yorkers’ lives. What we do provides the resources to ensure that children are educated, that streets are safe, that fires are extinguished, and that garbage is picked-up. There’s nothing like the feeling of contributing in some small way to those greater goods.
Who are your role models in the legal profession?
Barbara Jordan was one of my role models. When I was a little girl, my mother always brought me in the room whenever she was speaking and told me she hoped I would become a lawyer and an orator like Barbara Jordan.
My mom was also one of my greatest role models in the legal profession. She was not a trained lawyer however she used to “practice” immigration law. She was almost single-handedly responsible for getting a significant number of people from Honduras, Central America into this country legally. She was so successful that one of the prominent immigration firms reported her to the Internal Revenue Service and she was audited for several months.
She taught me everything I know about being a good lawyer. You have to know the rules, counsel people in how to comply with those rules, and work hard to change rules that are not fair.
Do you still play organized basketball? How have you managed to maintain a balance between your career and your interests outside of the law?
Unfortunately I need to have surgery on my knee because it dislocates regularly. As a result, I haven’t been playing but I’m still a huge fan. I coached for 12 years until I took the job as Finance Commissioner in 2002. I have a basketball hoop in my office and think best when I’m shooting baskets. I have been known to make decisions based on whether I hit 10 shots in a row and I get some of my best ideas when I have my basketball in my hand.
I do take time for outside interests. It keeps me sane. I used to serve on a couple of not-for-profit boards including the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
If you could chose another profession to be in, what would it be?
I would love to be a high school math teacher and basketball coach. My high school teachers had a profound impact on my life and I would love to have the opportunity to do that for New York City students.
What advice would you give to current students?
Law school provides an invaluable lifetime education. While I don’t “practice” law, I use the skills that I learned in law school every day in almost everything I do. Law school gave me options—I can practice law, help a not-for-profit develop a business plan, and oversee a 2,300 person government agency. After law school, there’s nothing that one can’t do.