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The prudence of a reversal

Published: 
Friday, May 19, 2017
Finance Minister Colm Imbert, during his presentation of the mid-year budget review at the Parliament Building in Port-of-Spain on May 10, 2017.

On May 10, in delivering the mid-year budget review, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said with regard to the tax on residential properties: “We do not intend to extend this deadline, since it is necessary to get on with the job of assessing the rental values and determining the applicable property taxes, so that tax collection can commence.”

Eight days following that definite statement, Mr Imbert appears to have completely reversed himself when he convinced the Cabinet that the deadline for the submission of the valuation return forms to the authorities should be extended by two weeks.

While politicians the world over are rightly criticised for saying one thing today and the polar opposite tomorrow, Mr Imbert deserves some appreciation for his practical solution to what may have been a difficult situation.

That situation, of course, is the thousands of citizens of T&T who have been willing to line up, in some cases for hours, in order to submit their valuation return forms.

The minister must have calculated that there were more residential property owners who were anxious to submit their valuation forms than could have been accommodated in the two days between today and the close of business on Monday.

Given that fact, it would have become obvious to Mr Imbert earlier this week that the only way to accommodate the multitudes wanting to submit their valuation return forms would be to extend the deadline, increase the number of offices at which the forms can be submitted and increase the number of officials accepting the forms and handing property owners receipts.

This new accommodative approach by the minister of finance is welcomed, as it contrasts so starkly with his previous my-way-or-the-highway approach of handling the nation’s money.

The fact that so many citizens are anxious to submit their forms can also be seen as a sharp rebuke of the opposition United National Congress, which has campaigned vigorously to encourage the population to engage in the kind of civic disobedience that UNC leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar showed when she tore up her valuation return form at a public meeting last month.

It would seem then that the population is not being swayed, on this occasion, by the UNC’s antics—or by that party’s support of legal challenges to the Government’s roll-out of the property tax.

It could be that a significant percentage of the population accepts the Government’s position that the country needs all the tax revenue it can put its hands on.

And that there is an intrinsic fairness in the tax, because those with large properties in upscale neighbourhoods contribute more revenue to the Treasury than those with more modest premises.

Further, it is clear that the tax legislation allows those who simply cannot pay the tax to defer such payment or to challenge the valuation that is meted out to them.

Finally, for the first time in the 18 months that the People’s National Movement has been back in office, the Ministry of Finance has been forced to embark on a concerted effort at selling the merits of a government programme to the population.

The ministry did this by advertising in the newspapers, allowing public servants in the Valuation Division to go on television and radio programmes and by setting up a hotline that allowed property owners to get answers to their burning questions.

That simple act of having a knowledgeable public servants answer the questions of the public—no lines ringing forever without an answer or interminably busy—may have calmed many fears, while convincing others they would not need to take a second mortgage on their property in order to pay the tax.

The Government would be wise to duplicate this effort on other major national revenue issues, such as the long-overdue fiscalisation of casinos.