'It may go into fraud': Higgs says inquiry may not be enough after property tax mess

'It may go into fraud': Higgs says inquiry may not be enough after property tax mess

Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs says the unravelling of the government's property tax methods and its evolving response to the shocking tales from property owners suggest more than an inquiry may be needed.

"It may go into fraud," Higgs said Thursday during the weekly CBC political panel. "It may go into deception or goes into a situation where if you can't be upfront and straight and honest. ... There's a deeper story here than just this tax issue itself."

The Gallant government has been trying to fight off criticism since it was learned Service New Brunswick invented renovation amounts for 2,048 homeowners with large assessment increases this past spring.

Premier Brian Gallant apologized for the fiasco and asked Joseph T. Robertson, the former New Brunswick Appeal Court justice, to head a "review of all policies and procedures related to recent assessment processes." 

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Eventually, Gallant's office acknowledged it gave the final go ahead for a fast-track adoption of a new trouble-plagued property assessment system.

On Thursday, no one from the Liberal Party took part in the weekly political panel, which normally includes representatives from all parties. A government email to CBC News on Wednesday said Minister Serge Rousselle wouldn't attend.

"There are a lot of legitimate questions being asked by media and New Brunswickers alike and government has some of the same questions," the email said.

The email said it would be premature for the government to comment on things that will be part of the Robertson review, which is to finish in August.

'On the backs of civil servants'

"The government has chosen to run and hide," Higgs said. "They have tried to deflect. They've tried to blame. They've tried to take this issue and place it on the backs of civil servants. 

"We don't need to make a meal out of this. It is a pure case of a wrong decision being made and an attempt to cover it up from the very beginnng."

Green Party Leader David Coon said a public inquiry needs to take place under the Public Inquiries Act, where a judge can call witnesses, including politicians who were involved in the process of implementing the new assessment system.

"We need to get to the bottom of it … there's a lot of work that needs to be done to build trust in this system," said Coon. 

Power structure not complex

He also said the chain of command in government is not as complex as the province has suggested,

"You've got the head of property assessments, who's the director, then the deputy minister …  and then the premier's office," Coon said. "That's a pretty short chain for people not to be in the know."   

Kris Austin of the People's Alliance called the Liberals' email response, a "pathetic excuse from this government" and called the property tax system "a scandal and corrupt."

He said New Brunswickers are fed up with the way government is being handled and says Service New Brunswick Minister Ed Doherty needs to resign and be held accountable.

"I'm convinced government was fully aware of what was going on in that system," said Austin.

Andrew MacLean of the NDP said he's hopeful the government will take the investigation seriously.

"The problems are here, they've arisen. ... If they choose to recognize this and fix this, this would be great for all New Brunswickers."