Legislature goes to the dogs: Premier goes after Higgs on tax appeals

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Blaine Higgs ready to push for answers on property assessment controversy in Legislature

Criticism in the New Brunswick Legislature took a personal turn on Wednesday, with Premier Brian Gallant taking offence at the mention of his dog Blaze by an Opposition backbencher and then going on the attack against the real estate holdings of Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs

Gallant accused Higgs of hypocrisy for calling on New Brunswick residents to challenge their property tax bills, claiming — wrongly as it turned out — the assessment on Higgs's family cottage got a big tax reduction.

"He got up and said that every single New Brunswicker should appeal their property assessment," Gallant said. "Did he do it?

"Did he do it after he saw that one of his properties, in its assessment, went down quite substantially? He said that thousands of property owners, or hundreds of thousands — or I think he said 170,000 properties — should all appeal their property assessments. Did he do it, or did he feel that the fact that his property went down was OK?"

Provincial property tax records show Higgs owns three New Brunswick properties. Two are adjacent family cottages in Forest City, north of McAdam on the U.S. border, and the other is his principal residence in Quispamsis. His house and one of the cottages had assessment increases, while the other cottage did not change.

Also questioning Higgs about his property assessments was Environment and Local Government Minister Serge Rousselle.

He said one of the two cottage properties owned by Higgs was purchased in 2011 for $141,000. It is currently assessed for $51,100, and Rousselle asked Higgs if he would appeal that amount as unfair.

Higgs did not respond to the personal questions and later Rousselle defended them as appropriate because the Opposition leader had called on "everyone" to appeal their property taxes.

"He's the one who was irresponsible asking everyone to appeal," Rousselle said. "So he's asking something from everyone, so did he do it himself? That was a very clear way of asking him to be responsible."

However, Rousselle's accusation about Higgs was also incorrect.

Two weeks ago, during question period, Higgs called on those who had assessment increases this year to challenge the amount — not everyone, as Rousselle claimed.

"Her Majesty's loyal Opposition has no alternative but to ask all New Brunswickers to appeal their property tax assessments if they have an increase this year," reads the official Hansard transcript of Higgs's statement from March 16.

SNB often ignores selling prices

The vacation property Rouselle and Gallant both seemed interested in was purchased by Higgs in 2011 for $141,000 from an American couple, even though it was assessed for only $16,400.

In 2014, which was Higgs's final year as finance minister, the assessment jumped 211 per cent to $51,100, where it has remained ever since.

Bob Fowlie, director of communications for the opposition office, said Higgs paid a premium for the vacation property because it was close to his existing cottage.

Last year, Service New Brunswick said it often ignores sale prices in setting assessments if it determines a party had reasons to pay more than market value for a property.

"Just because they overpay for that property — that we feel [they] have overpaid — we just can't increase assessment up to that sale price because that's only one sale in the marketplace," said director of property valuation Stephen Ward.

Gallant's questions about Higgs's cottage came despite the premier complaining about the personal nature of attacks in the legislature. He was especially upset by a statement by Carleton MLA Stewart Fairgrieve about his not being able to relate to the struggles of New Brunswick families since he only owns a dog.

"I would ask the leader of the Opposition to apologize for bringing up my family and bringing up my family dog in the legislature," Gallant said before asking Higgs about his cottage.