Tax­pay­ers, be­ware

Truro Daily News - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

It’s an in­ter­est­ing peek in­side the won­ders of the bu­reau­cratic mind. In New Brunswick, a pro­vin­cial agency didn’t have time to prop­erly as­sess more than 2,000 homes for prop­erty taxes.

So, in­stead of keep­ing taxes the same, govern­ment of­fi­cials sim­ply in­vented ren­o­va­tions on the prop­er­ties that the govern­ment then used as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to hike the as­sess­ments.

It’s a dirty trick that was un­cov­ered by a CBC News in­ves­ti­ga­tion, proof that peo­ple need the pro­tec­tion of an ac­tive, aware and suit­ably fi­nanced me­dia.

What hap­pened, ac­cord­ing to memos ob­tained by CBC, is that, legally, prop­erty tax as­sess­ments in New Brunswick can only rise by 10 per cent per year, un­less there have been ma­jor home ren­o­va­tions.

Ser­vice New Brunswick found 2,048 homes where as­sess­ments un­der a new au­to­mated sys­tem, us­ing aerial pho­tog­ra­phy, in­di­cated that the homes had in­creased by more than 20 per cent in value. Un­able to ac­tu­ally view each of the homes in time, the agency sim­ply cre­ated a for­mula to as­sume and im­pose that a set value of “ren­o­va­tions” had been done: it led to cir­cum­stances where a home­owner who had in­stalled two $300 laun­dry room win­dows found him­self as­sessed as hav­ing done $40,990 in up­grades – mag­i­cally, enough to jus­tify the fast-track sys­tem’s 31.9 per cent in­crease in his tax bill.

Ser­vice New Brunswick spokes­woman Judy Cole ad­mit­ted it hap­pened in an email to CBC, say­ing, “The prop­er­ties in ques­tion were de­ter­mined to have been new con­struc­tion or un­der­gone ma­jor cap­i­tal im­prove­ments when, in fact, that was not the case. … As­sump­tions were made re­gard­ing the per­cent­age of new con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tions in­cluded in these prop­er­ties.”

It sounds like a lu­di­crous way to solve a prob­lem – and now, the prov­ince of New Brunswick is talking about set­ting up an in­de­pen­dent agency to han­dle its as­sess­ments in­stead. Not ex­actly a shin­ing mo­ment – but a bla­tant ex­am­ple of the term “guessti­mate.”

The only way the is­sue came to light is that in­ter­nal memos were leaked out of Ser­vice New Brunswick and into the hands of the CBC. Rest as­sured, if in­di­vid­ual home­own­ers had been forced to take their cases, one at time, through the re­assess­ment process, they would face the same sort of scru­tiny those seek­ing re­assess­ment al­ways get: an as­ses­sor giv­ing his “pro­fes­sional” rep­re­sen­ta­tion of value while “am­a­teur” home­own­ers try des­per­ately to make their case. What they would be un­likely to re­ceive would be an up-front ad­mis­sion that as­ses­sors hadn’t even viewed their prop­er­ties, or that there were thou­sands of other res­i­dents of the prov­ince in same boat.

One thing you learn about gov­ern­ments? They may re­side and op­er­ate in dif­fer­ent prov­inces, they may be of dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal stripes, but their mind­sets are of­ten fright­en­ingly sim­i­lar. It’s hard to con­ceive, out­side of govern­ment, that some­one could be sub­ject to an imag­i­nary evaluation.

So, ask your­self: does your prop­erty tax assess­ment ac­cu­rately rep­re­sent your home’s value and the amount of tax you have to pay? I know two iden­ti­cal houses on a St. John’s street, side by side, same foot­print, same out­side main­te­nance, with a $30,000 dif­fer­ence in their as­sessed val­ues. I know a prop­erty owner, in New­found­land, who was as­sessed by a pro­vin­cial agency as own­ing two homes, on two prop­er­ties – though he only owned one. Even more fas­ci­nat­ing, both of the houses were as­sessed at the ex­act same price, to the penny – as if they’d never been seen.

Is your assess­ment an ac­cu­rate com­par­i­son to that of every other prop­erty owner, so that ev­ery­one pays their fair share of prop­erty tax?

And if it wasn’t – how would you know?

To take that a little fur­ther, if it was fab­ri­cated pretty much out of thin air, how would you know about that, ei­ther?

Rus­sell Wanger­sky writes from St. John’s, and his col­umn ap­pears in 29 At­lantic Cana­dian news­pa­pers and web­sites. He can be reached at rwanger@thetele­gram.com; Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

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