New Brunswick

Service NB bears weight of tax fiasco, but search for trigger confounded auditor

New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson says her office tried but ultimately could not get to the bottom of the biggest mystery of the province's property tax controversy.

After narrowing decision to a single day, Kim MacPherson couldn't identify precise push to fast-tracking

New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson presented her report on the property assessment scandal on Thursday. (Daniel McHardie/CBC)

New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson says her office tried but ultimately could not get to the bottom of the biggest mystery of the province's property tax controversy — who pushed for a new property assessment system to be rushed into service two years ahead of schedule?

"We don't know how that came about," Green Party Leader David Coon observed after trying to understand exactly what triggered the ill-fated decision. 

MacPherson was in front of the public accounts committee Thursday to present results of her five-month investigation into what went wrong with New Brunswick property taxes this year.

She spent an hour taking to MLAs in detail through a multitude of problems and consequences caused by what she called a "failed" attempt by Service New Brunswick to fast track a new digital assessment system into place over 10 months, after long planning to introduce it over a three-year period.

But the reason behind why the fast track decision was made in the first place, she acknowledged the answer had eluded her team of investigators.

Members of all political parties explored the issue for more than two hours of questions that followed MacPherson's presentation.

New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

She did offer a short list of two likely suspects who might have generated the fast track idea, including former Service New Brunswick CEO Gordon Gilman and Brian Gallant's chief of staff, Jordan O'Brien she could not pick between them. 

"It was the conversation between the chief of staff and the former CEO that led to fast track," said MacPherson. "But being able to definitely state what those conversations were …"  

3 events triggered fast-track

MacPherson said it was clear three events in succession on May 6, 2016 triggered the fast track misadventure.   

The first was a morning demonstration of new assessment technology for Premier Gallant by Service New Brunswick personnel.  

MacPherson said later that day, Gallant instructed Jordan O'Brien to call Gordon Gilman about what he had seen, but not about speeding up the system.   

O'Brien did this and MacPherson said, whatever happened in those conversations caused a decision to fast track the new assessment system. 

"On May 5 there was no plan in place, no intention to shorten the timeline from three years to one but by the end of the day on May 6, which started with the demonstration to the premier, they were cutting their timeline by two years," MacPherson told reporters during the lunch recess.

"We did conclude that it was the events of May 6 and the conversations that took place between the chief of staff and the former CEO by the end of that day, the wheels were in motion to fast track," she later told Coon during his questioning.

Stories don't match

But MacPherson said O'Brien's version of those conversations did not match Gilman's and there was no way for her to pick between the two.

She said Gilman was not "forthcoming" in his answers, and although he did not offer an alternative explanation for what he and O'Brien talked about, he also did not corroborate O'Brien's version.

But she concluded the conversations had caused fast track because after speaking with O'Brien on the Friday, Gilman contacted his own senior staff to tell them they needed to meet Monday to draw up a business plan to "accelerate" plans for a new assessment system.

MacPherson told the story carefully and she declined to offer any opinions of what she thought might've happened.

Personally authorized

Gilman personally authorized fast track in late May 2016, a month before Service New Brunswick's board of directors voted on the issue, which struck all sides as important.

"It is a significant point," MacPherson said. "He essentially gave the go ahead which had also involved additional spending. Staff were hired, they were on the payroll before it (fast track) went to the board."

In his questioning, Liberal MLA Victor Boudreau seized on the matter, hinting it might be evidence Gilman was operating on his own.  

Green Party Leader David Coon asked numerous question of the ill-fated fast- tracking of the new assessment system. (Radio-Canada)

But then Coon also raised it for the opposite reason.

"Seems like he felt for some reason he had the authority to plow forward before the board had even made a decision," Coon said.

MacPherson responded by saying that was "a fair assessment."

Opposition leader Blaine Higgs said MLAs needed to hear from Gilman and O'Brien themselves. He said the party will be proposing a motion in the legislature to have them summoned for further questioning.