'Fast track wouldn't exist without the premier': Assessment controversy continues

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Justice Joseph Robertson has a number of issues to sort through as part of his review of the property assessment controversy but one of the most critical will be to establish why a new system was put on a "fast track" before it was thoroughly tested.

Last Thursday, Premier Brian Gallant said Robertson would be given authority to get to the bottom of all issues related to the assessment controversy.

"New Brunswickers want to know how this happened," Gallant told reporters.

"This report … will confirm who knew what, when — and what did people do?"

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That's welcoming news to Service New Brunswick employees left confused by last week's claims that Galllant's office had little to do with the fast track decision — the opposite of what they have understood to be true for nearly a year.

"It was told to all of us," said one Service New Brunswick employee who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It was because the politicians got involved. Fast track wouldn't exist without the premier."

Gallant's office denies this but SNB employees say it's not idle office gossip on their part.

It was what they were told by SNB assessment managers beginning last summer. 

"That's what [they] told people and it spread," said a second employee.  

"It wasn't a secret or anything."

A switch to 'fast track'

To illustrate that point CBC News was sent a slide from what one employee said was an internal SNB PowerPoint presentation put together early last summer to explain the switch to fast track.

The slide appears to show SNB was telling employees it received a "demand" to accelerate implementation of a new property assessment system following a "BCD" presentation to Gallant. (BCD is an acronym for "Building Characteristic Diagram," an integral part of the new pictometry assessment system.)

The slide indicates the presentation to the premier generated an exchange, where the premier asked for the program to be in place in half the time of the estimated three-year plan.

Employees say they had no reason to question they were abandoning long-held plans to move slowly because of political pressure.

But the premier's office tells an entirely different story.

Last week Jordan O'Brien, chief of staff for the premier's office, said it expressed no opinion on fast tracking a new assessment system.

"Not that I can find any record of," said O'Brien, who maintains the idea of a new system was unknown to his office until last spring.

"To the best of my recollection the premier was at an event in early May last year — was presented this project and they said that they had an option to accelerate it and the premier had me ask some questions on his behalf about whether that was responsible."

Although the premier's office says SNB was the one pushing the idea of accelerating the new assessment system, it had developed no business case to justify a quick switch. 

"I wrote an email to the then — CEO of Service New Brunswick saying we would be open to their plan if they had a good business case for it," O'Brien told CBC News last week. 

But nothing like that had been prepared by SNB and it was 20 days before one was put together for the premier's office to review and approve. 

For those skeptical that speeding up the new assessment system was really SNB's idea, O'Brien said Gallant's appointment of Robertson should be a sign that government has nothing to hide.

"The premier's office involvement was almost entirely by coincidence," insists O'Brien.  

"If the premier had not seen a presentation at a public event about the project we would never even have known about it."

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Government announces new system

Still, the Gallant government wasn't as much in the dark about the new assessment system, as they might claim. 

In May 2015 Service New Brunswick Minister Ed Doherty publicly announced the system was in the development stages in an official government press release.

Then in November 2015, Doherty's department elaborated further, giving no hint of wanting to speed anything up.

In its annual report it said the new assessment system was on track and in the second year of what it called a "five-year modernization strategy".

All sides do agree on one issue — the five-year strategy to implement a new assessment system was abandoned for "fast track" following that demonstration for the premier last May. 

But there remain significant disagreements about why that happened — a mystery Gallant said will be solved soon enough.

"New Brunswickers will not have to take anybody at their word for very long," he told reporters. 

"Justice Robertson is certainly going to do all the due diligence necessary to make sure we shed light on this situation."