'Barely getting by' during wait for N.B. government to fix made-up tax bill
Quispamsis couple among last of 2,048 victims to finally get correct property assessment and tax bill
It was a long wait, but four months after being swept up in New Brunswick's property tax controversy with a 71 per cent increase in their assessment and tax bill, Tessa Brigley and her husband Eldon finally received confirmation from the province that the amounts were unjustified.
"After all this time we just heard last week — not a word until then," said Brigley, who found the increase a significant worry for much of the spring and summer.
"I didn't know what we were going to do. You're just people on a pension, you cannot afford this type of thing."
Last to be fixed
The Brigleys modest home in Quispamsis is one of the original 2,048 residential properties that had their assessments manipulated by Service New Brunswick to generate a large tax increase and it is among the last of that group to be fixed.
Last year, a new automated assessment system rushed into service by the province identified the 2,048 homes as being significantly undervalued and requiring major assessment increases — more than 70 percent in some cases.
But in New Brunswick, residential property tax bills are not legally allowed to increase more than 10 per cent per year, no matter how much an assessment goes up, unless the property has undergone "major" renovations.
High level assessment managers inside Service New Brunswick, who have still not been identified, bypassed the 10 per cent limit on tax bills for homeowners like the Brigleys by fabricating renovation amounts for each house.
A visual inspection of the Brigley home by an assessor this spring found no renovations at all and serious errors in the automated valuation of the house.
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The couple was informed last week that their assessment has been cut by $53,500 — to lower than it was last year — and their tax bill reduced by $695.18.
"I'm glad it's reversed but I would like to know how it happened in the first place because whoever did it is not doing their job correctly," said Brigley.
"There's a lot of people in the same boat. You're just barely getting by, you're on a pension or you are low income, and to just do that, it makes you mad."
Automated assessments flawed
Most of the original automated assessments done on the 2,048 homes have proven to be flawed and have not survived scrutiny once double-checked by a human assessor.
In June, an internal Service New Brunswick report obtained by CBC News showed that the first 1,868 homes reviewed were found to have assessments an average of $27,302 too high, with inflated tax bills to match.
The remaining 180 homes in the group, such as the Brigley property, are just now receiving new bills and appear to be following a similar pattern.
Cecil Scullion and his daughter Tana were just notified the 42 percent assessment and tax increase on the home they jointly own in Hampton was being wiped out completely following a reinspection and replaced with a 5.2 per cent reduction.
The house has undergone no renovations, does not have a basement and had its well ruined years ago when the town stored salt incorrectly and it got into the groundwater.
Given those issues, Scullion said the large assessment increase made no sense to him, but the way renovation amounts were then fabricated for the property to maximize the tax bill was doubly upsetting.
"If the law says it's only supposed to be 10 per cent if there's no renovations done, why would they be allowed to put it up by that," he said.
Auditor general prepares report
Service New Brunswick said 17,500 New Brunswick property owners have filed for a review of their tax bills this year, and with the 2,048 homes at the centre of the controversy dealt with, the agency has turned its full attention to those.
Just over 10,000 remain to be evaluated.
Property owners have until the end of next week, Aug. 1, to request a review.
Auditor General Kim MacPherson has announced she is investigating the origins of the assessment controversy and has promised a full report by November.