By Raffique Shah
June 15, 2018
Oftentimes, civic and professional organisations that stay aloof of the political mud-wrestling that has long been the dominant feature of our parliamentary system, provide citizens with greater clarity on legislation that impact our lives than our warring politicians do.
Such is the case with the controversial Property Tax Act and its many amendments. On every occasion that the legislation has come before Parliament, it has generated a fish-market-like cacophony and wild fear-mongering to the extent that an entire general election campaign (2010) was conducted on the theme “axe the tax”, and the Manning government fell, albeit on issues wider and larger than the tax.
As a citizen who knows that property taxation in one form or other is almost universal, and as one who paid Land and Building Tax for decades until it was suspended after 2009, I have tried to separate sense from nonsense in a bid to understand the new law and determine whether it was just and equitable.
If it wasn’t, I’d resist it. If it was, I’d pay up.
Luckily, I do not depend on the boisterous behavior of parliamentarians to guide me. It is alarming that so many supposedly intelligent people believe Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s diatribe that the valuation of properties for tax purposes would include fowl-coops, duck-ponds, pig-pens etc.
Even more shocking is the belief of a number of pundits that Hindus’ murtis and private “kuttiyas” (mini-temples) would be valued for taxation.
I suppose you can never really tell: Colm Imbert, in one of his mischievous moods, might just slip in something outrageous…or so the pundits believe. Incidentally, should property and other taxes not apply to theatre-like churches that operate from palatial edifices, generating huge revenues from exuberant members? These appear to be profit-oriented enterprises that should be treated as businesses, not houses of worship.
Maybe I’m overstepping my taxable boundaries here: this agnostic-cockroach has no place in religious-fowls’ business, so let me steer clear lest these pastors’ loyal flocks target me for an overdose of retribution.
Back to the Property Tax: last year, when government asked property owners to fill in and file their returns, and attach copies of a number of documents, I duly complied as best I could before legal action halted the process.
In a sealed manila envelope, I placed the form and copies of my last Land and Building Tax receipt and my Real Property Ordinance (RPO) title, the latter being a rather large document. About a month ago, I finally got acknowledgement from the Valuation Division of the Ministry of Finance—but there was no mention of my RPO title.
That lone omission had me angry: how could they not see the most important document I filed? Is this a case of gross incompetence at Valuation, or is someone trying to steal my property? I’m serious about this latter possibility. Because if the alleged malpractices in the Lands Division of the Ministry of Agriculture that I highlighted last week are true, the prospect of public officers stealing citizens’ lands are real.
I therefore call on the head of Valuation to address this grave omission which might well apply to other property owners who, like me, chose to comply with his demand to submit these documents.
Valuation Division officers are the first to interface with property owners as government moves to implement the new law, and first impressions count. Besides my own experience, I read a letter to the editor in which a female owner recounted her less-than-satisfactory encounter with the Valuation team. They were unfriendly, measured nooks and crannies in her house, and took photographs of fixtures such as air-conditioning units.
I should think that professional valuators can easily scrutinise a house from the outside and determine its dimensions, number of rooms, toilets and baths and air-conditioning units. They can certainly see pools, gazebos, etc. So why “invade” people’s homes, especially during daytime when mostly pensioners and housewives are at home?
In view of the crime situation, do they expect suspicious homeowners to welcome them, more so when adopt airs of authority like today’s bandits?
On the issue of assessing the annual rental value of properties on which the tax is based, how do I, for example, know or even guess that? There is one rented property on my 25-house street, and I hardly know the owner to ask her such question.
In such circumstance, which I imagine is not uncommon across much of the country, property owners have to rely on the judgment of the valuation officers, which, in turn, entails trust. If the officers fail the “trust test” in the initial encounter, then the tax applied would hardly be seen as fair.
I need reiterate that I am not against the Property Tax, and I am thankful to chartered surveyor and my columnist colleague Afra Raymond for the efforts he has made to explain its provisions to “dumbos” like me. I also commend the Institute of Surveyors of T&T which recently issued a Property Tax Update that the media should feature in full as a service to their publics.
The latter explains items like the minimum tax ($486 per annum), the Valuation Tribunal (for appeals), the new return form and penalty for failure to file same, waivers for categories of owners, and discusses issues like taxing squatters, the methodologies of valuation and the online property database.