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Monday 27 January 2020
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Legal action holds up property tax implementation

Three legal actions now before the High Court will determine when and if the government can implement its proposed property tax, according to Senator Allyson West, former partner and territory tax leader in the Tax and Corporate Services Department of PricewaterhouseCoopers, TT. She is a senior member of the Law Association, and on June 30 took up the position of Minister in the Ministry of Finance to handle the administration of the tax.

“The tax will essentially be as laid in the legislation that has already been passed in Parliament,” she said in an interview with Business Day. “There are some amendments that we need to propose to the legislation which we should be doing soon, but we are waiting on the court matter that is still being litigated. And what we need to do is proceed to do the evaluations and raise the assessments so we can communicate with the public on what their obligations will be and how soon that will start.”

Former Minister of Works and Transport in the United National Congress (UNC) administration, Devant Maharaj; UNC activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj; and Chaguanas resident Lutchmidat Ramcalle have gone to court seeking judicial review of the government’s decision to introduce the tax. Ramcalle is also pursuing a constitutional motion claiming that in seeking to introduce the tax, the government was simply motivated by the need to raise as much money as possible by collecting property tax.

Former Attorney General Anand Ramlogan is representing Ramcalle in the constitutional motion. Ramlogan said there is the feeling that the public has been “ambushed” by the government and the haste with which the government has moved to implement the property tax is in flagrant disregard of the enshrined fundamental rights of the people. He said the Minister of Finance intends to collect the tax based on the Property Tax Act of 2009, which gave a deadline of April 1, 2010. Ramlogan said that deadline had long expired and the property valuation forms issued to the public by the government were invalid, illegal and null and void because they were based on the Valuation of Land Act.

Ramlogan said the government cannot simply bypass Parliament and impose a new deadline without amending the law. He charged that this is a serious violation of the most basic and elementary principles of constitutional law, adding that it is reflective of an arrogant dictatorship.

West told Business Day the commencement of the property tax will depend on “how soon we can get the valuations done and in practice by the matter which is before the court.” She said the government “was prepared to go ahead with the tax using the information which we would have received in May, but then the court matter came up, so that has stymied our progress somewhat, but as soon as we determine where we are vis-a-vis that matter, we will know how to proceed from that.”

Shaken by the dire warnings of Minister of Finance Colm Imbert that there would be no postponement in the implementation of the property tax and even the likelihood of jail time for those who did not comply in filling out and returning the valuation forms, many householders across the country rushed to government revenue offices to file whatever documents they had in their possession, hoping to fend off some of the more unpalatable consequences of not doing so. Waiting in the sun in the long line outside the Revenue Office in Five Rivers, Arouca, in June, one woman was overheard telling another, “Let me file this document before they auction my house!”

West said these misconceptions arose because, as is the tendency of TT citizens, many people waited until the very last minute to file their documents and “people tend to get a little extreme. Because we wouldn’t start by auctioning a house.” She said the law clearly lays out the powers and duties of the tax authority in respect of the property tax and none of them include auctioning off a house for the owner’s failure to file a return."

West told Business Day, “We had a date for the filing of the return and on the basis of that we would have done the evaluation and sent out the assessments, but as I said, that has been stymied by the court matter. So we are waiting to see what results from that, but in the meantime, we are doing what we can in terms of getting ready for the implementation of the disposition of the tax.”

Among the preparations is the digitisation of the Land Registry, which West said, is coming along “slowly but surely.” She was unable to say when it would be completed.

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