'I sincerely apologize to all New Brunswickers': Assessment mess prompts overhaul

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Premier's office gave go-ahead to fast track new assessment system

Premier's office gave go-ahead to fast track new assessment system

Premier Brian Gallant apologized for the property assessment fiasco on Monday and promised to get the provincial government out of the property assessment business.

The government plans to turn property assessments over to an independent agency, Gallant said Monday at a news conference.

The province also tapped a retired Court of Appeal judge to lead an independent review of the property assessment process.

A lot of property owners and the New Brunswick Legislature have been in an uproar over revelations that more than 2,000 property assessments were based on "invented" renovations.

But Gallant stressed several times that a preliminary review of property assessments has found an "arbitrary formula" used to help with the estimation of property values this year was also used in 2011.

"There was clearly a failure of process and communication within Service New Brunswick, and that is why we will be having an independent review to ensure we learn exactly what happened and it can be corrected in the setup of the new independent assessment agency," said Gallant told reporters in Moncton. 

Meanwhile, Service New Brunswick Minister Ed Doherty apologized to those affected by the scheme that saw the province invent expensive renovations for houses.

"All New Brunswickers need to have confidence in the quality, the accuracy and the transparency of the property tax assessment process," he said. 

"I sincerely apologize to all New Brunswickers.

"This is a very, very serious matter and as government we will do everything we can to rectify the situation." 

2017 property assessment review

Gallant said an independent commissioner will lead the comprehensive review of all policies and procedures related to recent assessment processes, including the use of various technological aids.

The review, which will be overseen by Justice Joseph T. Robertson, a former judge of the Federal Appeal Court and a former justice of the Court of Appeal of New Brunswick, will look at assessment practices for the past seven years.

"What's really important is for us to admit as a government there was mistakes and there was mistakes for years," he said.

Gallant said there would be consequences in the review's findings, but it's too early to tell what those findings will be.

On Friday, Gallant said he only learned of the fictional renovations when the CBC contacted the government about them.

Doherty said that officials within Service New Brunswick noted that a number of properties with high assessment increases would not be able to undergo the full quality control procedures prior to the billing cycle.

In order to adjust the assessment values below the values generated with the assistance of a computer system, an "arbitrary" formula was used.

This resulted in bills that were significantly lower than what was produced by the computer system.

A news release said Service New Brunswick staff will be inspecting all of these properties again and issuing revised bills to all affected property owners.

"I regret all of the confusion caused by this and I apologize to New Brunswickers," said Doherty.

"It seems, however, that this is a long-running and systemic issue and our government will fix it."

Gallant said there is no deadline for New Brunswickers to report errors and for those errors to be corrected in their property assessments.  

However, there is a legislative deadline of 30 days for New Brunswickers to submit a request for review of an assessment where no error has been made.

'It's a deception'

Earlier on Monday, Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs said all levels of government should have been made aware of the problems with the new automated assessment system.

"It's a deception," Higgs told Information Morning Fredericton on Monday morning.

"There's no way that a process of this type going forward would actually not be discussed through all levels of government … it would all be well-known." 

Higgs called the made-up renovations "a major scandal for this government" and called on Doherty, to resign.

Calls for Doherty to speak

Higgs said a minister is accountable for what goes on in his department and "if he's not on top of his files and not paying attention to this than that's a concern, that's a minister's role."

Higgs said Doherty should be held accountable regarding the miscalculations in property assessments. 

"Ed [Doherty] needs to stand up and be accountable for this," said Higgs. 

"It's concerning that he has not been able or allowed to answer one question in the legislature."  

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Higgs said this has been a problem since the beginning of March, which the province hoped would go away.

"[There were] 2,400 problems that were out there [and] were not identified in any way shape or form," he said.

"Then for the premier to say, 'I just found out last Friday,' that's not even acceptable, this has been known for three weeks."

'Invented renovations'

An internal Service New Brunswick email shows that officials invented renovations for 2,048 homes because they didn't have time to have assessors check whether the property owners had actually done them.

"The conditions in which it's put in place, the risks, the benefits, if all of that had been determined, the likelihood of this going forward would not have happened," said Higgs.

"Clearly the facts and the details were not considered important."  

Each of the homes had assessment increases of more than 20 per cent, and because they were deemed to be renovated, a law that caps increases at 10 per cent didn't apply.

Service New Brunswick adopted the new automated assessment system this year that uses aerial photography to look for major renovations, but results came too late to be double-checked by human assessors.

In March, Service New Brunswick released a statement that acknowledged the significant number of "miscalculations" and apologized to property owners for the inconvenience.

As a result, Higgs said, the province was trying to "diminish the issue."

The new system "should have gone through all levels of government and it should have been stopped," he said. 

"The premier's now going to look for someone to blame. … I know how hard these people work [at Service New Brunswick], I know they would want to do due diligence on this process."

Higgs said an open investigation should take place and the province needs to take responsibility and apologize for how it dealt with taxpayers.

"The government has failed," he said.