Property tax scandal leads to PC call for ministers to resign

The New Brunswick Legislature was in an uproar Friday morning over revelations that more than 2,000 property assessments were based on "invented" renovations.

Premier Brian Gallant blamed Service New Brunswick employees for what he called "a very troubling and very disappointing" situation revealed by CBC News.

"The elected officials of our government were not aware of what had transpired," he said. "We were made aware yesterday."

Gallant said he only learned of the fictional renovations when the CBC contacted the government about them.

'Major scandal,' says Opposition

But Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs said that wasn't good enough, pointing out the Liberals promised weeks ago to investigate huge assessment increases.

"Not being aware means nothing was happening to protect the citizens of the province. Not being aware is not an excuse," said the leader of the Progressive Conservatives. "No one was looking.  No one cared."

He called the made-up renovations "a major scandal for this government."

An internal Service New Brunswick email showed that officials invented renovations for 2,048 homes because they didn't have time to have professional assessors check if those houses had them or not.

Each of the homes had assessment increases of more than 20 per cent, and because they were deemed to be renovated, a law that caps increases at 10 per cent didn't apply.

Service New Brunswick adopted a new automated assessment system this year that uses aerial photography to look for major renovations, but results came too late to be double-checked by human assessors.

Premier discouraged by lack of SNB response

During a stormy question period, Gallant said the assessments "were done hastily and improperly by Service New Brunswick."

The premier also said he was "discouraged" that the Crown corporation didn't tell him and other elected leaders of the issue. "We would like to have found out from the department's employees," he said.

Higgs reminded Gallant that in the British parliamentary tradition, "individual ministers' responsibility is a constitutional convention. … In our system a cabinet minister bears the ultimate responsibility for actions."

Higgs said Environment and Local Government Minister Serge Rousselle, who has fielded questions on the assessment issue, should resign. "At some point you have to take ownership," he said.

Rousselle answered only one question from Higgs Friday and said "you can imagine my disappointment" about the revelations, which he said he learned of late Thursday afternoon.

Higgs also said Service New Brunswick Minister Ed Doherty, who has not spoken publicly about the weeks-long assessment controversy, should quit. Green Party Leader David Coon also said Doherty should resign.

In a later scrum with reporters, Gallant said the president and vice-president of Service New Brunswick "are saying they weren't aware either" of the invented renovations.

He rejected the calls for Rousselle and Doherty to resign because he said they had no idea of what was going on. "The ministers were briefed throughout this process," he said. "This never came up."

He said "at no point" did any elected official tell Service New Brunswick to apply what he called "a little formula" to ensure the new assessments weren't late. "That is inappropriate and should not have happened."

Gallant said there were discussions about whether the new system should be implemented in one year or over two years, and "it may be the case" that his office or the ministers were involved in the decision to do it one year.

Praise for whistleblower

Higgs also repeated his call for Gallant to extend the Friday deadline for assessment appeals, and said the government should scrap a proposed three-week adjournment of the legislature until April 25.

"We have a scandal in front of us now," Higgs said. "The right thing to do is not to run and hide."

Gallant rejected both suggestions, and pointed out assessment errors aren't subject to today's appeal deadline.

The premier also took the unusual step of praising the Service New Brunswick employees who leaked the email to CBC News.

"We had an employee of government who did the right thing and made this public," he said. "We would have liked to have been made aware of this situation a long time ago. … Fortunately an individual took it upon himself or herself to be a whistleblower."