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Taxpayers Stand to Lose Under Chicago’s Lease Tax VDA Offer

Yesterday, the City of Chicago (City) Department of Finance (Department) published an Information Bulletin that provides additional guidance on the Personal Property Lease Transaction Tax (Lease Tax) and extends a new Voluntary Disclosure Agreement (VDA) offer to providers and customers. The updated guidance includes an overview of the Lease Tax, a description of the amendments included in the FY 2016 Revenue Ordinance that passed on October 28, 2015, and answers to 15 FAQs. The details on the Department’s controversial interpretation of the Lease Tax in Ruling #12 and the recent amendments to the Lease Tax have been covered by the authors in prior blog posts, available here and here. The new VDA offer is a significant development that may be enticing to certain providers and customers. However, before providers and customers rush to sign up to pay the Lease Tax for the foreseeable future, they should carefully evaluate whether any Lease Tax obligation is in fact due and whether they qualify under the loose terms outlined in the Bulletin (discussed in detail below). It should be noted at the outset that the guidance (and accompanying VDA offer) do not relate to the City’s amusement tax, which has also been of concern after a ruling was issued this summer interpreting the tax to apply to streamed digital content.

VDA Offer Terms

The most significant component of yesterday’s guidance is the VDA offer beginning on page 6 of the Bulletin. While the VDA may seem enticing, we encourage providers and customers alike to proceed with caution as the practical application of the ambiguous (and discretionary) terms are tainted with uncertainty.

As a threshold to qualifying, the provider or customers must qualify (i.e., be a qualified discloser) for the City standard voluntary disclosure program. Under the standard program, a taxpayer must not be under audit or investigation (i.e., has not received a written notice relating to an audit or investigation for the tax at issue) and must “waive their right to an administrative hearing or claim for refund or credit, and agree not to initiate or join any lawsuits for the payments made under the program.” This is significant because we believe a challenge to the Lease Tax is imminent and those that participate in the VDA program will not benefit if any such challenge is successful.

Even if a taxpayer is considered a qualified discloser under the standard program, to qualify for the more favorable Lease Tax offer providers and customers must file an application by January 1, 2016, and come into compliance with the Lease Tax Ordinance by the same date (or such later date that the Department may agree to). If all of these requirements are met, they will receive the following terms:

  1. As to charges for nonpossessory computer leases that qualified for Exemption 11 under the Department’s interpretation of the exemption before the issuance of Ruling #12, no liability for tax, interest or penalties based on those charges for [...]

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Chicago, Searching for Tax, Taxes Searchable Websites

Taxpayers providing services over the internet need to carefully consider two recent City of Chicago rulings: Lease Transaction Tax Ruling #12 and Amusement Tax Ruling #5. Issued together on June 9, 2015, the rulings extend a 9 percent tax to most services provided online. Charges for video streaming, audio streaming, computer game subscriptions, and other forms of online entertainment are subject to the 9 percent amusement tax. Charges for essentially any other kind of interactive website or online service, with only a handful of exceptions, are subject to the 9 percent lease transaction tax. The lease transaction tax is supposed to be a municipal sales and use tax on the leasing of tangible personal property, but the City is stretching the tax to encompass the deemed use of the provider’s computer in accessing a website or program over the internet. As detailed in this On the Subject, providers of information services and cloud-based services need to evaluate the applicability of the City’s guidance and consider whether to comply or challenge the imposition of tax.

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