COMMENTATOR and chartered surveyor Afra Raymond recently told Newsday the Valuation Division's current exercise for land owners to submit information can in fact be used for levying property tax, including for homeowners.
Raymond is past president of the Institute of Surveyors (2009-2010) and a past president of the Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry (JCC) (2010-2015.)
An advertisement published recently in the newspapers by the Valuation Division said anyone in possession of "residential land, commercial land, agricultural land or a combination" must fill out a form containing its details by November 30, on pain of a $5,000 penalty under the Valuation of Land Act (section 32).
Newsday asked if the word "land" only meant land with no buildings, as the advertisement does not mention the phrase "dwelling house."
Raymond replied, "Yes, the legal definition of land includes anything in, on or under it."
The instructions accompanying the form on the Valuation Division website confirm this view by saying, "'Land' or 'property' includes buildings or any part of a building."
Also, the form or return itself seeks "building details" such as whether the flooring is of ceramic or porcelain tiles, timber, carpet, etcetera, and whether the ceiling is ceiling tiles, decorative plywood or gypsum board, etcetera.
Further confirmation comes in the Valuation of Land Act, which says "land" included "all buildings or any part of any building" (plus paths, passages, watercourses, land covered with water, and "all structures, machinery, plant, pipelines, cables and fixtures" which are "upon, in, over, under or affixed" to land).
Newsday asked if valuations now being done under the Valuation Act could also be used for property-tax calculations.
Raymond replied, "Yes, that is what the information is being gathered for. Property owners/occupiers do not have to provide a valuation. That is being done by the State."
The Valuation of Land Act (section 24, Uses of Valuation) says where "any other written law" refers to a valuation such as an annual rental value, this shall be the valuation made in the Valuation of Land Act (unless otherwise provided for in another written law).
Further, the Property Tax Act (section 3, Interpretation) says annual rental value is determined by the Commissioner of Valuations "under the Valuation of Land Act."
Some confusion may arise from the Valuation Division's frequently asked questions (FAQ) section, where the answer to question four says, "The valuation roll is not property tax. The valuation roll is a record of data on all parcels of land in TT inclusive of value. The Valuation Division does not process or collect property tax."
Newsday asked if the recent Valuation Division ad was related to a similar exercise in recent years in which field agents visited people's homes to make notes, and whether those prior values will be retained, with estimates for new properties to be added to the roll, or the whole exercise will be re-booted from the start.
Raymond replied, "My impression is that this is a fresh information-gathering exercise, after the legality of the 2016 exercise was tested by Devant's Maharaj's lawsuit, in which the State prevailed in 2018."
Newsday asked about an apparent ambiguity in the Valuation of Land Act on penalties for non-compliance.
Firstly, section six specifies a $500 fine for a property owner who fails to make a return within the allotted time or makes one which is defective or incomplete. However, section 32 imposes a $5,000 fine for any property owner who "obstructs or hinders" the commissioner or his/her officers in their duties or who "refuses to furnish any information when required to do so or fails to comply with any requirement of this act."
The advertisement says, however, under section 32 of the Valuation Act a failure to submit a return was a criminal offence with a $5,000 fine.
Raymond said, "The correct fine can be up to $5,000."
Despite vigorous attempts for over a week, Newsday was unable to contact the Commissioner of Valuations to put these questions.
The Property Tax Act, in sections ten and 11 and schedule one, says relative to the annual taxable value of a property, the annual property tax payable is three per cent (residential), five per cent (commercial), three to six per cent (industrial) and one per cent (agricultural), even as the advert does not mention industrial properties.
No property tax or land and building tax has been collected since 2009, with waivers granted for the intervening years owing to both a policy position by the former People's Partnership government (2010-2015) and Maharaj's legal action stymieing efforts of the Rowley government's first term (2015-2020.)
While many people joined long queues to file their forms at various government revenue offices in 2017, three legal challenges including Devant Maharaj's, blocked this exercise.
Maharaj challenged the commissioner's call for all property owners to submit their valuation forms, arguing this was illegal and violated his constitutional rights.
However by 2018 Justice Jacqueline Wilson rejected this argument by ruling the exercise was voluntary, clearing the way for the current resumption.
Wilson said, "It is reasonable that the commissioner, in seeking to facilitate the taxation regime after a prolonged hiatus, would in the first instance seek to obtain information from land owners on a consensual basis while reserving the right to exercise more intrusive powers at a later stage.
"I am of the view that the commissioner’s assertion that the VRF (valuation return form) was a voluntary request for information is both reasonable and credible and that the commissioner’s evidence should prevail.”
Property Tax Act
Section 3: “annual rental value” means the annual rental value of land as determined by the Commissioner of Valuations under the Valuation of Land Act.
Valuation of Land Act
Section 6 (4) A person who wilfully –
(a) fails to make a return within the prescribed time
under subsection (1); or
(b) makes a return which is defective or incomplete or which is to his knowledge false in any material particular, commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $500.
Section 32 (1) Any person who –
(a) in any way obstructs or hinders the commissioner or any other officer in the exercise of his function under this act, or refuses to furnish any information when required to do so or fails to comply with any requirement of this act; or
(b) refuses or neglects to attend and give evidence when required by the commissioner or any officer duly authorised by him in that behalf, or fails, refuses or neglects to answer any questions put to him, or to produce any book, document or other paper required of him by the commissioner or any such officer, unless just cause or excuse for the refusal or neglect is shown by him, is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $5,000.