Property tax not simple at all for the elderly

In this January 30, 2021 file photo Ramhit Narine, 77, appeals to the authories for help to fix landslips to protect his home. Some elderly homeowners face challenges to comply with property tax guidelines. - Photo by Marvin Hamilton
In this January 30, 2021 file photo Ramhit Narine, 77, appeals to the authories for help to fix landslips to protect his home. Some elderly homeowners face challenges to comply with property tax guidelines. - Photo by Marvin Hamilton

Once someone retires from active employment, most employers organise a small function to say farewell, thank them for their service, help organise their NIB and other pension benefits, and, although the relationship ends formally, old contacts sometimes remain to give advice.

None of the passages in life is easy or problem-free, including retirement. Throughout our working lives, and in particular as we pay our first NIS contribution, we are warned that NIS pensions are not intended to be sufficient to support you as you age, especially if you intend to live a long, long life, and that you should plan for, and save for post-retirement support.

Plan, save and invest to support yourself, and if you are lucky enough to have any, your loved ones and those who need help in the community. It is part of what is accepted as the responsibilities of mature adulthood.

It is an important a development milestone in the lives of human beings and marks as difficult a passage psychologically as first going out to school, (which a whole generation in TT has now missed), getting or changing jobs, or losing one.

Post-employment is as huge a transition in a person’s life as is first employment. Most of us need some guidance or support to handle these transitions successfully. If we are fortunate, we get that support from family and the organisations which are established in a civilised community for that purpose, so that even natural disasters, illness, accident, floods, fires and potholes in the roads are planned for. And some aren’t. Like covid and inflation. Death and taxes.

With every transition there are gains and there are losses.

As I get older myself, I am more aware of the effect of transitions and sometimes the difficulties they cause, from new systems that are installed, unasked, in computers overnight, to new bank regulations which only employed bank staffers know – and not even most of them – to new laws, regulations and, especially, taxes.

Many years ago, I did some research on categories of human-rights discrimination in the Caribbean and discovered that the most extreme discrimination was not racial, religious or even political, as I had thought. It was discrimination against the elderly.

If the first question someone asks you when you meet is: “What is your name?” the second is likely to be: “And what do you do?”

If the response is: “I am retired.” their interest vanishes as does their conversation, unless they are a con artist who wants to invest your severance or pension money for you “at a much better interest rate than you can get in a bank or credit union.” If you have not experienced it, don’t rush. You will.

We watch route taxis that don’t stop for the elderly, clerks who don’t notice them standing waiting – and remember the bank that would not allow an elderly woman to use the bathroom, forcing her to urinate on herself and the floor after waiting in line, with tears running down her cheeks, for over an hour.

Now, in our new normal, thousands of people are without employment, income and potential sources of hope, with nowhere to go for advice as to how to deal with the new taxes, rules and regulations.

Some help once given by companies to retired employees, has ceased as the organisations fold. Ministries don’t even answer phones.

A typical example is that of an elderly couple I met. The silver-haired woman was 82, her husband 88. He had retired at 65, 23 years ago, with a company pension of $1,500 a month that they thought, with NIS, they could live comfortably on.

Life became less easy after retirement, as costs went up and pension income didn’t, but they lived moderately, saved what they could, and had paid off the mortgage on their home early.

Property values had risen enormously in 30 years in what had been, but was no more a semi-rural area, but if they were taxed on a new valuation, they knew they could not afford to pay more, or pay a lawyer to petition government for an exemption. They would have to sell the only home they had ever known.

Their one son had been killed in a car accident that had left their daughter, who lived with them, disabled. She had no one else.

Neither of them was computer-literate; it had not been required when the husband worked, nor had e-mail been common. They still wrote letters and mailed them by hand, as do many people their age. When they got an official-looking document from the Ministry of Finance’s Valuation Division, they came asking for advice, as his former company, which used to help, had closed down.

The Taxation of Land Act, the precursor to the new property tax that has been announced, lists certain classes that will be exempt from property tax, including “land belonging to and in occupation of the State or its servants” Section 1(f) (iii), which, I am told, can be interpreted to exempt the same civil servants who drafted the act.

The elderly man had not been a public servant, so he was not exempt.

I read the letter and understood why they were upset. If you do not fill it in, adequately and correctly, by the end of November this year, it announced, you can be convicted of a summary offence and fined $5,000. A summary offence is one that is immediate: you don’t have to go before a magistrate.

So I looked up the Valuation of Land Act. It is easy to do. Google "laws of Trinidad and Tobago," go to the letter “V” for Valuation of Land Act. Press “enter” and up it comes.

I have three university degrees, and I couldn’t help them.

My discipline is industrial relations and philosophy, not construction. I understand Kant’s Categorical Imperative, but building materials? I am no good at that.

The information demanded includes what your ceilings are made of, in each room – among others, celotex, gypsum, gypsum tiles, plywood, decorative plywood and grooved plywood.

How am I supposed to know all that? I am not a builder. I do not know how to distinguish between celotex and gypsum, if my flooring is ceramic, porcelain, or “other,” whatever that is, and how many square feet are in each room, or, for goodness’ sake: the measurements of
the whole house, inside and out!

I couldn’t help them.

Why do the people in the Valuation Division expect people to measure their houses and calculate the square footage in every room? Isn’t valuation what people go to university or technical college to learn? Isn’t that what government hires valuators to do? Why do they require lay people to do their work for them and threaten if we don’t, or get it wrong they will have us fined and

That is “a real and present threat” to many people, not just elderly pensioners who can’t afford legal help.

Is not filling out a form a criminal act in this country? When have things turned so cruel against the old or helpless?

This sounds like Orwell’s Animal Farm, where “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

I am looking to see if there is a Grey Panthers organisation I can join to fight for the rights of the elderly.


"Property tax not simple at all for the elderly"

More in this section