Premier pushed to speed up tax assessment changes, document says

Over 15,000 property owners appeal property tax bills

CBC News has obtained a second internal Service New Brunswick document that claims Premier Brian Gallant personally pushed for the acceleration of a new property assessment system — something he and his office have both publicly denied.

The document is an update sent early last summer to Service NB staff on why plans to introduce a new computerized, desktop assessment system slowly over three years were being abandoned in favour of a rapid one-year deployment.

"Premier Brian Gallant was recently exposed to desktop review," the note said.

"He immediately requested our CEO Gordon Gilman to accelerate PAS' [Property Assessment Services] modernization efforts. A budget of $922,000 was approved on June 22."

Last week, Brian Gallant's chief of staff, Jordan O'Brien, said not only did the premier not push Service New Brunswick into accelerating the new system, but he was worried the agency might be moving too quickly.

"He [Gallant] mentioned to me that he has heard about the property assessment modernization project and that they had been discussing moving it more quickly," O'Brien wrote in an email to CBC News.

"He expressed concerns to me that this could be a political issue if a lot of assessments went up."

No comment from SNB

Service New Brunswick spokeswoman Sarah Bustard said the agency has no comment on the document or why it appears to contradict Gallant's version of how the current assessment scandal began.

"We understand there remain questions in regards to the issues that have been identified with property tax assessments in 2017," Bustard wrote in an email to CBC News.

"That's why we have named an independent commissioner to undertake a comprehensive review. In respect for this independent review process we will defer further comment."

Last week Gallant announced an inquiry into what went wrong with the province's new assessment system this year after CBC News uncovered widespread errors with both assessments and taxes — some of them deliberate.

2,048 property problems

Service New Brunswick acknowledged it ran out of time to properly deal with 2,048 homes the new computerized evaluations seemed to suggest were severely undervalued.

Rather than check the properties, the department's assessment managers took two decisions. They reduced increases suggested by the new system 30 per cent (in case they were wrong) and then fabricated renovation amounts for each home so that the rest of the increase could be fully taxed.

It's not legal in New Brunswick to raise a residential property tax bill more than 10 per cent in one year, no matter how high the assessment jumps, unless there have been substantial renovations.

By fabricating renovation amounts, the 2,048 homeowners all got tax increases above 20 per cent even though many had little or no property improvements.

Insiders blame sudden switch

Service New Brunswick insiders who spoke with CBC News on the condition of anonymity universally blame the problems on the sudden one-year switch to the new assessment system, but there has been no clear explanation about why that happened.

Gallant and his office have said Service New Brunswick proposed the accelerated switch but at least two separate internal communications delivered to Service New Brunswick staff last summer and obtained by CBC News say it was the premier himself who pushed for it.

In one case, a slide in a PowerPoint presentation to staff appeared to say the decision to fast track the new system was a "demand" made by the premier.

The latest document — sent by email to staff — echos that explanation.

Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs, who last week accused Gallant of ordering the premature switch to the new assessment system, said the internal SNB documents are confirming that.

"The weight of evidence is clearly against the premier," Higgs said in a statement.

Last week O'Brien, the premier's chief of staff, insisted neither he nor the premier expressed even a preference between accelerating the new assessment system or sticking to the original three-year implementation.

"Not that I can find any record of," he said.

Service New Brunswick document