Colette Langlois was appointed as the NWT's first ombud in April 2019. Photo: Submitted
The Northwest Territories’ ombud wants the GNWT to review its records of unauthorized occupancy after a man accrued nearly $80,000 in tax arrears and interest on a property he vacated more than 20 years ago.
In a new report on fairness in property assessment and taxation, Colette Langlois, the territory’s ombud, says the departments of finance and municipal and community affairs were “unjust and oppressive” when they continued to charge the man, who is not named, taxes and interest on a property he last occupied in 1999.
Langlois is asking the NWT government to confirm its list of unauthorized occupants, remove those who have vacated property from its assessment roll, and develop a simplified process for doing so in the future.
“This complaint is an example of how citizens’ rights can get accidentally crushed in the complexities of government,” Langlois said in a statement. “It is also an example of one of the basic roles of the ombud, which is to make sure that administrative problems like this get to the attention of the senior officials who have the power to fix them.”
According to the report, the man moved into a partially finished house on the lot – in an unnamed NWT community – in the 1980s. He received help from the territory’s housing corporation to fix it up. The man did not own or lease the lot but became the assessed owner as an unauthorized occupant.
He received taxation and assessment notices from the territorial government, which is responsible for property taxes in areas outside municipalities.
In 1999, the man was able to get a new home through the housing corporation and tore down the old house on the lot. He did not notify the territorial government that he was leaving the lot. At the time, the ombud’s report states, he owed $3,830.85 in taxes on the property, including arrears and interest.
Even though the man had no legal interest in the property and no longer lived there, because he was still listed as the assessed owner, taxes and penalties continued to pile up. By 2020, when he made a complaint to the ombud, the man owed a total of $20,516.14 in taxes and $58,543.87 in penalty interest.
The man said while he continued to receive assessment and taxation notices for the lot after 1999, he found them confusing and ignored them as he assumed they must be a mistake. He did not know that he could make a complaint to the territory’s board of revision to remove his name from the assessment for the property.
The ombud’s report states that in 2008, when an assessor visited the community, they noted the land no longer had a home on it, so annual taxes on the property were decreased. Even though the territorial government knew the man no longer lived there, staff believed they could not remove him from the tax assessment because he was in arrears. Under that policy, Langlois said, “it seemed like new taxes could continue to build up indefinitely.”
Following a review prompted by the ombud’s investigation, the departments determined territorial legislation did not require the man to stay on the assessment roll. As a result, the departments cancelled taxes and penalties on the property from 2008 onward and “substantially” reduced the man’s debt to approximately $4,500.
Langlois noted there could be other people in the same situation, as the territory doesn’t have an immediate way of determining how many assessed owners are unauthorized occupants and how many are still being taxed on what is now vacant land.
Langlois said assessment notices include “fine print” and are “full of jargon and technical details” that many people may find challenging to understand. Some people may not have easy access to computers, the internet, printers, or phones if they need copies of forms or have questions, she added.
“Having written information in clear and understandable language, and local or regional contacts who can answer questions, can make difficult processes more accessible to more people,” she wrote.
“Clearer information about the board of revision process and information specifically for unauthorized occupants would make property assessment services fairer and more accessible to a more diverse range of people.”
The departments have agreed to the ombud’s recommendations, which are not binding, and said they have made some progress toward implementing them.
“The departments worked together to find a good solution for the complainant and are now also working on fixing the larger issues behind the complaint. I see this as a very positive outcome for everyone,” Langlois concluded.