New Brunswick

'I haven't done any repairs': 89-year-old widow in line for property tax refund

Helen Wheaton was thrilled to find out last week that she is due a $426.88 refund on an inflated property tax bill she paid last March.

Service New Brunswick fabricated $15,120 in renovations on Helen Wheaton's Sackville home to maximize her tax

Helen Wheaton of Sackville was surprised to find her tax bill had jumped 29 per cent since last year. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)
Helen Wheaton was thrilled to find out last week that she is due a $426.88 refund on an inflated property tax bill she paid last March.

"Holy hell, that sounds pretty good," she said in an interview from her Sackville home. "Usually the government goes in the other direction."

Wheaton is an 89-year-old widow. She built her modest country house by hand with her late husband, Manning, in 1950 and there is little she owns that is more important to her.

"Lot of memories here," she says.

Tax bills manipulated

Wheaton's home she built with her husband, Manning, who died 18 years ago. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Wheaton's property tax bill arrived in the mail during the first week in March, and although she did not know it at the time, it was one of hundreds that had been manipulated by provincial government bureaucrats to maximize the taxes owed.

Most homeowners who got one of those inflated bills never paid, because the controversy surrounding property taxes erupted before they were due — but Wheaton felt she had to.

"I've got to pay the damn taxes or they'll take me to the cleaners," said Wheaton.

"Manning and I, we went back to the woods and we cut logs and we built this house on our own, I know every nail in it. There might be a lot of flaws but we built her. When the tax bill comes in I pay up. I don't want to lose my house."

Familiar story

Wheaton's property tax story is a familiar one now in New Brunswick.

Her assessment inexplicably jumped 29 per cent in March and then her tax bill jumped 29 per cent along with it — despite a consumer protection law in New Brunswick that forbids residential property tax increases of more than 10 per cent in any one year, no matter how much assessments go up.

The only exception to the 10 per cent restriction is if "major improvement" renovations have been undertaken. But a quick look at Wheaton's house makes it clear that was not the issue.

"I haven't done any repairs," she said.

"Nothing's been done. I've been alone for 18 years living on a limited budget.  You don't do any repairs."

Despite that, Wheaton's tax file claimed there had been renovations — $15,120 worth. 

It was an amount Service New Brunswick officials made up so her tax bill could be raised the full 29 percent.

'Kind of maddening'

An assessor dispatched to view Wheaton's property as part of a reexamination of all houses caught up in the scandal found no basis for the assessment increase on her home, and no renovations. 

Her 29 per cent tax increase was replaced with a 5.5 per cent reduction last week. 

According to those calculations the province had overcharged Wheaton $426.88 on that first property tax bill.

"That's kind of maddening," said Wheaton.

"I just pay it, I don't fight over it. I know I've got to pay a tax bill to keep my house and so whatever they send me that's what I pay without fighting."

AG looking into property tax blunder

"Holy hell, that sounds pretty good," said Wheaton about her refund. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Auditor General Kim MacPherson is now digging into exactly what happened to homeowners like Wheaton with two key questions still hanging in the air: Why so many assessments like hers were inflated in the first place, and who is responsible for fabricating renovation amounts for homes to maximize the tax bills? 

"I have full access to information," MacPherson said last week about statutory powers at her disposal to fully investigate the property tax controversy.

"There is also the opportunity to subpoena people if I feel that it's necessary to do that.  We've never used them before but I haven't started the work yet." 

Wheaton isn't sure yet if the province will issue her a refund or a credit on next year's tax bill. But she knows where any extra money she does receive will be going: back into her house.

"I'm going to try and get it painted this year. Maybe not the whole thing. Maybe just the front."

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