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Russell Wangersky: Taxpayers, beware

Home tax assessment
Home tax assessment

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.

Russell Wangersky

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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