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Lawsuit alleges lack of fairness in Newfoundland and Labrador home assessments

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Case reveals issues with municipal process of estimating values, lawyer says

When lawyer Paul Fitzpatrick of Conception Bay South got his property assessment from the Municipal Assessment Agency in 2016, he knew something wasn’t right.

His home was valued at $516,000 by the agency. He started digging around and doing some research on nearby homes, only to find that his home had increased in value by more than 50 per cent since 2012, while nearby homes had increased in value by only 35 per cent.

In addition, some of his neighbours, with similar houses, had home values more than $100,000 lower than his.

“I found that there were significant problems — in my opinion — with the way that properties were assessed in my neighbourhood,” Fitzpatrick said.

He had appealed his home assessment with a commissioner appointed with the town, who agreed with Fitzpatrick and reduced his home assessment from $516,000 to $473,400.

But Fitzpatrick says that result didn’t satisfy his concern with the municipal assessments.

At the heart of the matter is uniformity. Fitzpatrick says the case wasn’t about being overcharged for taxes in the town.

“My biggest issue is uniformity. It’s the uniformity principle that ensures taxpayers are treated equitably. That is the single mechanism in the assessment process to ensure that people pay their fair share of taxes — no more or no less,” said Fitzpatrick.

Justice Alphonsus Faour agreed with Fitzpatrick about the issues he’s raised. The Municipal Assessment Agency must now “specifically address the issues of actual value and uniformity” set in the Assessment Act.

Fitzpatrick says he doesn’t think there’s anything underhanded or malicious going on when it comes to the issues he’s faced. He says the agency is simply overworked, which can lead to issues.

“The assessment agency has almost an impossible task to perform. They have to ensure that every property in the province is assessed accurately every three years and maintain an accurate assessment of their market value in a real estate value that’s up and down all over the place,” he said.

“That creates a problem in that the system is not thorough, it’s not sufficiently detailed to ensure that every property is done appropriately.”

On top of that, he says the taxpayer has a high hill to climb to appeal a decision they don’t like.

Fitzpatrick says he was only able to take on the case because he’s a lawyer. To appeal an assessed home value can be an expensive, time-consuming process for a homeowner. Legal fees could cost thousands of dollars, when an overvalued home could cost only a few hundred dollars over the course of a year, so most people would see it as too much trouble, Fitzpatrick says.

One potential way to ensure people can have a better appeal process is to keep the Supreme Court out of these matters. Fitzpatrick says small claims courts could be used to settle home assessment matters.

“You would think it would go to the small claims division. The town goes to small claims court if I don’t pay my taxes,” he said.

“I, as a citizen who’s fighting over a few hundred dollars, have to go to the Supreme Court Trial Division under complex Court of Appeal rules. It doesn’t make sense.”

Fitzpatrick says he’s pleased he was able to win the case and perhaps make a difference to other homeowners in the province.

“I’ve always felt that the system is stacked against the taxpayer, and the assessment agency is given far too much leeway,” he said.

“It’s time someone stood up to that.”

david.maher@thetelegram.com

Twitter: DavidMaherNL

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