commentary by Rosaire L’Italien in The Daily Gleaner
A tax system in crisis. $50 million in fabricated renovations. Public trust compromised and eroding. The New Democratic Party has been calling for a full overhaul of this province’s broken, incomprehensible and unfair property tax system for some time and this recent crisis reaffirms that.
Currently our property tax assessment system is a tale of two New Brunswicks.
It’s the best of times for the large corporations, which are being given endless tax breaks by not having their property tax assessments increased since the 1970s, which has cost this province hundreds of millions of dollars…
And it is the worst of times for thousands of everyday New Brunswickers who, through no fault of their own, have seen their property taxes skyrocket through the roof with no explanation.
New Brunswickers are frustrated when they see their property values decrease and their required tax payment increase. What further exasperates New Brunswickers is properties in the same neighborhoods assessed at different values, with the lesser valued property paying a higher tax bill. This is totally unacceptable.
According to Premier Gallant this problem has been with us since 2011. Premier Gallant stated that the same errors were committed in 2011 under the previous Progressive Conservative government of David Alward. This illustrates a pattern where New Brunswickers have overpaid their tax bills for a number of years. It must be determined whether political interference occurred in both 2011 and 2017.
We also believe that accountability begins and ends with the Premier. Our Premier has not been one to accept responsibility for the government’s actions and decisions. We have seen in many instances where the Premier and government placed the blame with staffers and the civil service. We have seen this recently with safety standards at Parlee Beach and financing for the Bas-Caraquet shipyard being blamed on civil servants rather than Ministers taking responsibility for things that went wrong on their watch. We urge the Premier and his ministers to lead and accept responsibility not only in this matter but in any issue where public trust has been eroded.
What the New Democratic Party knows is that the two previous governments cut jobs in Service New Brunswick. We believe that this reduced workforce contributed to the hasty assessments compounded by possible interference from the Premier’s office.
We applaud that Justice Robertson will lead an inquiry into how property assessments are done. While we support an inquiry, we feel that Justice Robertson should be given a broader mandate beyond just the recent assessment processes, and undertake a full-scale review of the property tax system. Our hope is for a more open taxation process that takes away sweetheart deals given by the province to large companies behind closed doors, where their properties are not assessed for 40+ years. We need a system that’s fair across the board. We also feel that any inquiry into this issue requires full public disclosure: recent changes to the Inquiries Act will give Judge Robertson authority to restrict public access to information or prohibit public reporting. This could allow for hearings to be held in private. That would be unacceptable to New Brunswickers.
Finally, we are more than a little confused that at the exact same time as the Premier announced Justice Robertson’s inquiry he also announced that the property tax assessment branch of Service New Brunswick would be made “independent.” That seemed an awful lot like announcing the inquiry’s recommendations at the same time as launching the inquiry. Our hope is that “independent” does not mean privatized in the eyes of the Premier. Privatization will lower standards of work and lower the standard of living for workers. Giving control of property tax assessments to for profit private companies has been tried elsewhere with negative results, and is the wrong move.