Imbert: Government making property tax easier for public

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Finance Minister Colm Imbert

FINANCE Minister Colm Imbert has said the Property Tax (Amendment) Bill 2024 will soften the impact of the payment of property taxes on the population. That will happen through measures such as extending the time for people to challenge the valuation of their residential properties as well as the time in which penalties will be imposed for failing to pay the tax. Imbert made those statements when he opened debate on the bill in the House of Representatives on Monday.

“This bill which is before the House today is designed to assist people. It is designed to soften the impact of property tax. It’s designed to give people more access to challenging a valuation (of a property) and it is simply designed to help people.”

Imbert reminded MPs of his statement in the House on March 15 on the intentions behind this bill. He made the statement after the public raised concerns about the suspension of property-tax payments and in the wake of complaints of the valuation of their properties being unfair.

Imbert said the regulations which allow indigent, elderly, or infirm people to apply to the Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) for a deferral of property-tax payments were published on March 15. He also said an order to extend the time for people to object to valuations of their residential properties from 30 days to six months had been published.

Imbert said, compared to other countries, TT was unique in the number of ways people could challenge valuations of their residential properties. They include raising concerns with the Commissioner of Valuations, Valuations Tribunal, the BIR, the Tax Appeal Board, and the High Court.

Against that background, Imbert said, “It would have been quite easy for us to do nothing. But that is not how this government operates.”

The BIR, he continued, was on target to complete the delivery of notices of tax assessment to residential owners before March 31. “The BIR was quite automated in its process, generating as many as 15,000 notices per day. So they could have easily completed this exercise in a couple of weeks.”

But he reiterated that in light of the public’s concerns, the Finance Ministry’s permanent secretary has asked the BIR “just to hold their hand until we sort out these legislative amendments.

“The primary reason why the time period to issue notices of assessment is being extended is to deal with discrepancies in the valuations.”

Imbert said one of the benefits of the bill would be that if people received notices of valuations on their properties last November, they now have until April to challenge those valuations if they think they are unfair.

The bill, he continued, gives Government the opportunity “to now include in the Property Tax Act a provision where the time for doing anything… delivering notices of tax assessment… imposition of penalties… and so on… can now be extended, in the same way that it can be done under the Valuation of Land Act.”

Under this legislation, Imbert said, “There is a provision where the time period to challenge a valuation can be extended by order.

“We are now including a similar provision in the Property Tax Act, so as we go along if we see the need to extend the time by which taxes should be paid… to extend the time by which penalties and interest are to accrue and so on… we can extend.”

Imbert repeated what he told the House on March 15 about the historical complexity involved in the valuation and collection of property taxes. “This is a work in progress.”

He reminded MPs that the 2009 Property Tax Act was designed to simplify the valuation and collection of property tax because previous pieces of legislation caused vagaries which led to serious inequities in this tax.

He also reminded them that in its latest Article IV report on TT on March 11, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said, “Additional revenue could be generated by adjusting the fiscal regime of the energy sector, boosting non-energy revenue, and strengthening tax compliance and administration.”

The IMF identified implementing the property tax and establishing the Revenue Authority as two measures to achieve that goal.

Imbert argued that contrary to its public claims, the Opposition UNC fully supported the implementation of property tax. But at a news conference in Port of Spain on March 17, Oropouche West MP Davendranath Tancoo had said the property tax was unethical, unfair, and selectively applied.

Government MPs thumped their desks when Imbert declared, “This is political hypocrisy at its highest!”

He outlined the argument that the UNC wanted the property tax to be implemented. Imbert reminded MPs of the September 2013 budget presentation of then-finance minister Larry Howai, under the UNC-led People’s Partnership government. He quoted an excerpt from that presentation of what Howai said about property tax, also known as land and building tax.

“The land and building tax regime is a key pillar in all modern tax systems. The current land and building taxes meet all of the conditions of a good and fair tax.”

Howai, Imbert continued, outlined that the proper implementation of the tax required the “proper valuations of properties within a transparent framework. He said it was public knowledge in 2013, from Howai’s presentation, that the UNC had plans to implement the tax in three phases, from 2014-2017.

“They (UNC) thought they would still be there (in government) in 2017.”

The PNM won the general election of September 7, 2015, to remove the PP from office and retained government after the August 10, 2020, general election.

Imbert said the PP planned to implement property tax first on industrial properties, from July 1, 2014. Commercial properties were to be taxed next. Agricultural and residential properties were to be taxed last.

After noting that Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar had been leading the UNC’s charge against the implementation of property tax, Imbert said video evidence from Parliament om September 9, 2013, told a different story with respect to her opposition to property tax.

“I looked at the video of that budget presentation and I saw that the Member for Siparia (Persad-Bissessar) who was prime minister at the time, was sitting next to the honourable minister of finance, Mr Howai, and was applauding this statement made by the minister of finance, Mr Howai.”

Imbert said the UNC continued to mislead the population by saying the property tax was determined under the land and building taxes legislation by taking ten per cent of the annual rental value (ARV) of a property, while the tax under the 2009 Property Tax Act, passed by the PNM government, was only three per cent of ARV.

After giving examples of the kinds of property tax paid on residential properties in other countries, Imbert elicited inaudible claims from Opposition MPs when he said he suspected all of them owned residential properties in the US.

In response, Imbert said, “I think they protest too much.”

He then changed his earlier claim. “Any one of them – because I know it have one that has property in the US – you would be paying two per cent of the market value. So whereas in TT, your tax might be $2,000 a year, if you had the same property in the US, it would be $20,000 a year.

“They happily pay that $20,000 a year in property tax, but in TT they have a problem.”

He reminded MPs that one of the features of the bill was to reduce the rate of residential property tax from three to two per cent of a property’s ARV.