After having their industrial classed farmland — because of the Rogers cell tower erected on it — unfairly taxed for the past 19 years a County of Wetaskiwin couple asked council for their tax money back, and won, thankfully.
As councillors held their discussion of the matter during their latest meeting I was growing more and more nervous they were actually going to deny the couple’s request — as administration was recommending they do.
Fortunately they ruled in favour of the couple’s needs in the end, despite some back and forth and clashing opinions.
Councils and elected civil servants need to keep trust, transparency and credibility in high regard. Especially when it was the county staff making the mistake for 19 years.
Rene Boutin, county director of assessment, informed council the system he operates with puts the onus on the ratepayers to keep an eye on their taxes and speak up if something is wrong. The untrained ratepayers versus the trained and paid staff …
To me this seems like a very convenient way to avoid responsibility and sidestep having to acknowledge or even be aware of mistakes made.
The way Rene was talking leads me to believe this system is fairly common but, like most law-abiding, tax-paying citizens out there, I’m no expert.
However, it seems the majority of responsibility when it comes to tax errors is always placed on the taxpayer, at least in Canada.
According to the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada and Don Goodison, CFP, FCGA, a partner of Kemp Harvey Goodison, Certified General Accountants, in Burnaby, B.C., when it comes to taxpayer accountability it is generally the responsibility of the taxpayer to make sure everything with their tax submission is correct.
Goodison writes, “Some taxpayers will jump at the chance to pin the blame for errors and omissions on their accountant. In the vast majority of those cases, it is the taxpayer who has failed.”
However, even if this system is the norm that does not make it any less underhanded for those who were in the right.
Like the couple pointed out in their package for council, they just kept paying their taxes and never appealed the matter because they had no idea they had been assessed and were paying taxes while the 19 other parcels with cell towers were not.
And how could they have known that for the past 19 years they were the only ones paying the taxes? The mistake went unnoticed for all those years until the couple went to renegotiate their contract with Rogers Communications.
Using the county webmap it’s quite easy to zoom in and see what a parcel of land is assessed at, plus total annual taxes. But if even the county had no inkling the 19 parcels had never been assessed and were not paying taxes why would the couple be expected to go digging around investigating other parcels of land?
As I was sitting there listening to Rene note the couple had the chance every year to appeal the assessment and that’s why their request should be denied, I couldn’t help but wonder why a couple who always paid their taxes on time — and probably had other things going on in their lives — should also have to do the job the county staff who are trained to work in the tax and assessment department.
Yes, there were staffing changes that took place in the department over the years and sometimes things get lost in translation but if the tables were turned and it was the ratepayers that had been making a mistake for 19 years having to pay back the money would not even be a question.
For those who don’t pay their own taxes properly there are consequences. There’s a six per cent penalty on the current balance only after Aug. 31 and it’s seven per cent on the total outstanding balance after Dec. 31.
Ignorance would not stand in that situation and it should not have been given the opportunity simply because it was a municipal organization in the hot seat.
Like many others, the county is facing financial challenges. But a mistake was made and simply acknowledging it is only half the solution.
But all’s well that ends well and council, by making the right decision, was able to instill faith and goodwill in a loyal, tax-paying family.
Amelia Naismith is the new reporter for the Leduc/Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer. She writes a regular column for the paper.