A picture of confusion: No clear explanation for wonky tax bills

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These hotspots of botched property assessments could be helpful guide

Service New Brunswick says its new aerial assessment system is not to blame for large errors in property tax bills that went out to hundreds of homeowners earlier this month, but so far the department is not offering an alternative explanation.

"No, this is not a reported issue," Service New Brunswick spokeswoman Judy Cole said of the province's increasing use of "pictometry" — or multi-dimensional aerial photography — to evaluate properties.

In December the province's director of modernization of assessment services said the switch to pictometry, which involves low-flying aircraft taking overhead and side-view pictures of buildings, would be an improvement.

"We needed to get to data that was more accurate and more current," René Landry told CBC News at the time.

"As before, the real test for property owners comes in March, when they compare their assessed value to what they could expect to sell it for on the open market."

Homeowners shocked

But for hundreds of homeowners that test failed this month when their assessments — and property tax bills based on them — appeared to bear no relation to the actual value of their homes.

On Saint John's Morgan Road, homeowner Donald Mahar was shocked by the 33 per cent assessment and tax increase he received and even more shocked to find no human had visited to see the state of his home.

"When I was up I asked them, 'Do you not have anybody that comes and looks at the place?'

"Oh we haven't done that for years," Mahar said he was told. "I said how do you justify what a guy's property is?"

Service New Brunswick has already acknowledged an "error" in Mahar's assessment and promised him a new bill, but other homeowners are equally perplexed by how wildly inaccurate their assessments were.

'This is ridiculous'

"I went 'Oh my God, this is ridiculous," Beth McCann said about the property tax bill she initially received for her Saint John home.

She complained and last week Service New Brunswick acknowledged a problem and adjusted her assessment from a $43,600 increase to a $10,400 decrease.

That's a $54,000 error on the original assessment and a $969 difference in property taxes.

McCann said she has no idea how a mistake of that size could have been made since the house next door has been for sale for months with no takers, and the last upgrade she did was a new electrical panel five years ago.

'It's so random'

"About 10 years ago I had the house painted," said McCann.

"It's so random. Why would they pick my house? I'm not even that good about mowing my lawn."

But it's not the only mistake made in McCann's neighbourhood.

Late Monday, Margaret Penchoff who lives a stone's throw from McCann, suddenly had the assessment on her house adjusted from a $70,600 increase to a $600 reduction.

Penchoff got a phone call from Service New Brunswick saying her bill was under review, but she did not get much information.

"He did not say anything about the problem," Penchoff said of the assessment official she spoke with. "He said that they were getting a lot of calls."

The change means Penchoff was over-billed $1,280 on her original property tax statement and although she's happy it has been fixed she's upset with the original error.

"Getting a bill like this and scaring people to death that they may even lose their homes — it's very stressful," she said.

Few details from province

The province has given little detail on what caused such major mistakes but did acknowledge that some problems were caused by "calculating gross living area incorrectly."

Those calculations are often done using pictometry, but so far Service New Brunswick is not confirming any cause for why errors were so large.

They are also not explaining why property tax bills with assessment errors also failed to limit tax increases to 10 per cent as required by law.

Keith Greenhalgh, whose assessment on Charles Street was off by more than $41,000, says he was told the errors were computer-related.

"They indicated they were either using new software or a new algorithm to determine the value of the homes," Greenhalgh said.

His assessment has since been changed by the province from a $33,700 increase to a $7,400 decrease.