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

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Service New Brunswick to spend $1M to fix property assessment flaws

Premier Brian Gallant's office is acknowledging it gave the final go ahead for a fast track adoption of a new trouble-plagued property assessment system, but denies pressuring Service New Brunswick to speed up the project.

"They [Service New Brunswick] suggested they could do it in one year," said Jordan O'Brien, the premier's chief of staff, in an interview with CBC News.

"We asked them to do their due diligence to make sure that was responsible. They provided it. We said, 'OK you know your business, manage your business.'"

Service New Brunswick [SNB] had a three-year plan to gradually introduce a new digital property assessment system — called pictometry — to triple, perhaps quadruple the number of properties it can evaluate each year.

The system utilizes aerial photography, computer analysis and sophisticated mathematics to calculate property values rapidly, but ran into several problems when Service New Brunswick abandoned the three-year roll out in favour of switching to the new system in less than one year.

'Fast Track' system

SNB called it, "Fast Track."

"It was a runaway train in a live testing environment," said one Service New Brunswick insider on condition of anonymity.

"Fast Track had no time for quality, only revenue. It was unstoppable even amidst major warning signs regularly communicated by staffers."

The system produced some unusual results that were sometimes misinterpreted by SNB employees unfamiliar with the new system.

Problems escalated, culminating with 2,048 homeowners having their property tax bills manipulated by SNB managers who invented renovation amounts to justify large property tax increases.

- 'They did it on purpose': Province accused of deliberately overcharging homeowners on property taxes 

- Why the New Brunswick government invented over $50M in renovations 

Insider: Fast Track to blame

"All errors, mistakes, cover-ups, poor results and bad decisions are all Fast Track-related," said one inside source.

SNB insiders blame the premier's office for imposing Fast Track on the agency because the new system promised new revenues by unearthing undervalued properties.

Tuesday the union representing assessors who work for SNB openly accused the government of causing the mess.

"It came from the politicians," said New Brunswick Union President Susie Proulx-Daigle. "It was supposed to take three years to implement this new program and they decide to fast track it and that came from high above. That's what I've been told."

But O'Brien strongly disputes that.

"They had an option to accelerate it and the premier had me ask them questions on his behalf about whether that was responsible and whether it made sense and they provided some evidence that suggested it was," said O'Brien

"We didn't say, 'No, don't do it in one year,' but we also didn't say, 'Rush ahead and do it in one year.'"