Reviews of 2,048 houses that had their assessments rigged by Service New Brunswick to produce large tax increases for homeowners are turning up another, potentially more serious problem: the accuracy of the assessments themselves.
Service New Brunswick personnel have been slowly sorting through homes caught up in the ongoing property tax scandal and have already discovered errors in property valuations so large it's raising questions about the accuracy of the province's new automated assessment system.
Keith Greenhalgh's east Saint John home is among those affected. Following his complaint, a human review of the automated aerial assessment done on his property — known as pictometry — resulted in a $41,100 correction in his favour.
"It's just astounding," said Greenhalgh of the difference between the automated and human assessments of his property.
"There's no justification for it. The human element has to be present. I don't see how they can base it just from pictometry, from an aerial view."
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To date, the property tax controversy has revolved around the way provincial assessment managers bypassed a legal limit of 10 per cent on property tax increases by fabricating renovation amounts on homes they knew were in line for large assessment jumps.
If a home has undergone "major" improvements, the 10 per cent limit on property tax increases can be exceeded.
In Greenhalgh's case, his assessment was slated to increase 21 per cent, so Service New Brunswick made up $17,730 in renovation costs on his home and raised his tax bill 21 per cent as well.
Human assessor spots errors
But the assessment increase itself was deeply flawed and dissolved as soon as a human assessor reviewed it.
"The gentleman I spoke to looked at the [neighbourhood] sales figures and the house and it jumped out at him. It was obvious to him it was clearly an error," said Greenhalgh, who eventually ended up with a 4.6 per cent assessment decrease.
As of last week, just over 220 of the homes caught up in the scandal had been reviewed, but problems with the accuracy of the automated assessments have persisted.
On Saint John's Beach Road, five homes were hit by the controversy.
One house at 16 Beach Rd. had a 48 per cent assessment and tax increase imposed by use of the automated system and fabricated renovations, but that was wiped out completely following a review.
The difference between the automated and the human assessments was $79,400 on a $164,000 home.
Around the corner, a house at 21 Crowley Road had its assessment increase cut by $52,300 following a human review. Across the city, a home on Wallace Court had its increase rolled back $71,200, and a house on Sand Cove Road got a $53,400 reduction.
Accuracy of aerial system questioned
Errors discovered so far in the 2,048 properties hit with big tax increases have been so large it raises questions about the quality of all 100,000 assessments done with the new aerial technology.
The new system was used mostly in the greater Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton areas and in nearby towns like Hampton, Sackville and Woodstock.
Northern areas and most rural communities were assessed using traditional methods and have reported few problems.
But insiders fear errors may be widespread and only beginning to surface in areas surveyed with pictometry.
"This is way bigger than 2,000 properties," said one SNB official on the condition of anonymity.
"There's mistakes all over the place. There's thousands of them."
On Moncton's Information Morning Tuesday, Premier Brian Gallant said he's not ruling out more problems being discovered.
"One of the issues we have is that this keeps unravelling," said Gallant.
"One of the things that has been clear throughout this process is we don't know all the information."
Brian Lynch lives in one of four homes on Beach Road that is still waiting for a review.
Service NB fabricated $61,690 in renovations to his home and increased his tax bill 36 per cent.
Although he believes the amounts will eventually be erased, he's appalled about being caught in the mess.
"I'm just astounded," said Lynch.
"It's like losing the lottery."