'There are errors that happen:' Minister downplays this year's tax-bill errors

'There are errors that happen:' Minister downplays this year's tax-bill errors

A mistake was made calculating the property assessments of 2,400 homes in New Brunswick — and mistakes happen, says Post-Secondary Education Minister Donald Arseneault.

Arseneault downplayed the mistakes that led the Liberal government to send those homeowners tax bills with increases exceeding the legal limit of 10 per cent, saying mistakes were more frequent in previous years.

"There are errors that happen," Arseneault said during the Political Panel on CBC. He suggested New Brunswickers become more informed about what's involved in property values.

"I encourage people to question why you're assessed a certain way," he said. "There's so many issues out there, including this one, that maybe people don't really understand how market value of their properties work."

Earlier this week, Service New Brunswick blamed a "human error" for the miscalculations that saw some tax bills go up 20 to 40 per cent. The department didn't get into detail.

Arseneault said Service New Brunswick has flagged the issues and is sending proper corrections to the affected homeowners.

But he said the mistakes haven't been as bad this year as in years prior. In 2012, he said, Service New Brunswick saw 9,472 errors. In 2013 he said there were 7,791 and in 2014, there were 8,941 errors.

"These are errors the same as your 2,400 number," he said. 

Bruce Fitch of the Progressive Conservative Party, however, said the errors were not the only problem.

It was the way the province handled the large number of errors, Fitch said, starting with the week spent in denial that anything was wrong. The government showed a loss of openness and transparency, he said.

"It's the government's handling of the situation that has made it appalling."

Fitch blamed Ed Doherty, the minister responsible for Service New Brunswick, for not being on top of the situation as soon as the miscalculations came out. 

"Errors do occur but it's the covering up of the errors that … is the real issue," Fitch said. "Why did the government cover this up and deny there was a problem?" 

Doherty hasn't been answering questions about the Service New Brunswick errors, leaving Arseneault, Premier Brian Gallant and other cabinet ministers to talk about the issue.

Fairness is bigger issue

David Coon, leader of the Green Party, sees the whole situation as a distraction from a bigger issue, which he says is the shifting of the property-tax burden in the past 15 years from big industry to the majority of New Brunswickers.  

"Money they're having to pay — taken out of their pockets — to pay to put in the pockets of billionaires," Coon said on the panel.

Coon used the example of the LNG tax assessment, which dropped by almost 70 per cent.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin agreed.

'Broken' system

Average people "You see this huge massive gap between what average New Brunswickers are paying in taxes," he said. "We see a continuation of average New Brunswickers making up the difference for large industry."

The NDP's Andrew MacLean jumped in, calling for a review of the property tax system altogether, describing it as "broken, incomprehensible and unfair."

The property tax system "tells a story of two New Brunswicks, where the best of times include large corporations that are given tax breaks through not having their assessments increased for decades, MacLean said

"It's worst of times for average New Brunswickers, thousands of which are seeing their property values skyrocket through the roof through no fault of their own, with no explanation."