Arithmetic lessons for the Finance Minster
By Raffique Shah
April 28, 2017
Trinidad and Tobago is one cantankerous country-we always quarrelling. In fact, we invariably have several quarrels raging at any point in time over issues or personalities such that we go off on tangents, forgetting who or what was in dispute in the first instance.
It is often said that you cannot please all the people all the time. With respect to Trinis, you cannot please anyone anytime. This characteristic is not to be confused with the proverb, "you can fool all the people some of the time...but you cannot fool all the people all the time". In this latter regard, you can fool all Trinis all the time: just inform them via email that they have won the jackpot in a lotto they know nothing about, and you can relieve them of a "processing fee".
But back to our quarrelsome nature: before the row over the Tobago ferry could subside, we are barking and biting, pot-hound-style, over the introduction of the revised property tax, which we knew would be implemented as far back as when the PNM won the election in 2015, and which we know is a standard form of taxation in most countries.
Now, I should say up-front that I believe that Finance Minister Colm Imbert and those who are advising him in the exercise are playing the ox. The one-month window they have decreed for property owners to submit piles of documents to the Valuation Division for appraisal is unimaginably inadequate. Bearing in mind that citizens can be penalised for failing to comply, let me explain why I say Colm is an ox.
Taxable properties under the law are residences, commercial, industrial and agricultural businesses, agricultural lands and other vacant, privately-owned lands. The State is exempt, which means that anyone who is squatting on State lands, whether he is operating a quarry or living in a shack, is not obligated to pay the tax. But you and I, law-abiding citizens, must comply. Which tells you what? The law is an ass, and those who formulate it or rigidly enforce it are jackasses.
Now, in the 2011 census exercise, the Central Statistical Office determined there were 401,000 residential households in the country. By now, that number might have risen to 450,000. Add, say, 50,000 commercial and industrial properties, and a minimum of another 100,000 parcels of land either vacant or agricultural, and you have a massive 600,000 property owners straining at the bits to board the Valuation Division.
As readers may have guessed by now, Valuation, which falls under the Ministry of Finance, has a grand total of nine offices! Yes, you read right-nine. And if we factor in under-staffing, subtract lunch-hours and social media time, more than likely not more than 500 officials are being asked to accommodate 600,000 sets of documents in no more than 20 working days!
Simple arithmetic ought to tell super-bright Colm (so his friends say) that we are talking about 30,000 transactions per day! Madness!
The only government agency that has such capacity is the NLCB, whose hundreds of Play Whe outlets cater for tens of thousands of gamblers every day. No other, not Inland Revenue, not the police, not the courts or the health system, even if they are combined, can handle such a flow of people.
Mr Minister, you will need at least one year-and that is optimistic-to simply allow all property owners to submit their documents, and for Valuation to commence appraisal where that is necessary. I note this latter because I am crediting officials at Valuation with having established some methodologies for applying the tax, hence not needing to physically assess all properties, a process that could take forever.
I have no problem with having to pay property tax, once itís reasonable and fairly applied. While the timing of its implementation is not propitious, what with the depressed economy, many persons on the breadline, and generally people catching hell, it must be done at some time-if not now, when?
Government should offer deferrment to retrenched workers who may have acquired homes when they were employed, but are currently under stress. They will not remain unemployed forever. Also, pensioners who will have worked long and hard to own modest homes, should be given consideration: maybe those who inherit their properties when they die can fulfill this obligation before taking possession.
Property tax laws, unlike those that apply to incomes, profits and consumption, should be administered with a heart, if we can conceive of politicians and tax collectors having hearts.
I cannot, however, agree with people who willingly pay higher taxes when they visit or reside in developed countries, but who insist on paying nothing in their native land. Such persons are aptly described in Sir Walter Scottís poem "Patriotism": "Breathes there the man with soul so dead...Despite those titles, power and pelf...The wretch, concentrated all in self...shall go down to the vile dust from whence he sprung..."
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