An accountant’s guide to property tax assessments across Canada
There are key differences in provincial approaches to appeals
OTTAWA – As I promised in part two of this series on accounting firms, their clients and municipal property taxes across Canada, I’m going to share my thoughts on how the assessment and appeal process differs across Canada. I’ve managed hundreds of client files across the country over the years and dealt firsthand with the different approaches taken by our provinces and territories.
John Clark, vice-president, tax and valuation, Regional Group.
Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan: In my experience, these provinces are extraordinarily client-focused. Assessors generally can be easily contacted to sort things out without the need for legal representation or to file an appeal.
On one of my Saskatchewan client files, for example, we filed an appeal a day before deadline.
The assessor involved reached out to me the next day and said, “John, I hate appeals, why didn’t you just call me?” So, I told him the issues, which in this case were factual and easy to identify due to a technical error, and the next day he strikes 30 per cent from the assessed value!
Now, bear in mind this positive outcome was only achieved because I and the client had done our homework to have all our facts in order and well-presented — such due diligence is critical regardless of the jurisdiction in question or how burdensome its appeals process may or may not be.
British Columbia: BC requires formal appeals, similar to Ontario, but is more comparable to Saskatchewan in that it is quite client friendly. Assessors are accessible and formal legal representation is not required to file an appeal. This helps to expedite the resolution of an issue in a reasonably quick and cost-effective manner.
B.C. is also one of those jurisdictions with a 12-month assessment cycle, versus Ontario, where assessments roll out on four-year cycles. New assessments come out every fall and property owners have only until the end of January to file an appeal. If your client has property there, they must be organized.
Ontario: This is the most challenging jurisdiction in Canada. It is difficult to get an assessor to take a second look at an assessment without filing an RfR or a full appeal. A property owner can file an appeal directly themselves, but unless they are working through an agent or representative (such as their property manager), then they will have to retain a lawyer or paralegal.
Quebec: Legal representation is not required and assessors tend to be very organized and reachable. They do, however, tend to follow the letter of a strictly rules-based system that can be challenging for the layperson to navigate.
The Maritimes: As a whole, assessors in these jurisdictions tend to be responsive and accessible but you will almost always have to file an appeal first before speaking with them. No legal representation is required in these provinces unless a file becomes very contentious and the issues become legal versus valuation in nature. As an aside, I once mentioned to an assessor in New Brunswick how efficient they were to deal with. The comment back was, “We’re a poor province and can’t afford to be inefficient like Ontario.”
The Territories: In Canada’s North, you will find a client-centric and accessible approach comparable to what is common to Western Canada.
How accountants can help their clients
As a chartered professional accountant, you can provide added value to your client and facilitate the process in several ways. As I mentioned in my previous post, if your accounting firm has a number of clients with revenue-generating properties, consider creating a matrix or database that tracks which client is up and which is down — this trendsetting and benchmarking may make it easier to flag outliers that may warrant a closer look.
CPAs have the professional experience either to work with the assessor directly or with an appraiser who can assist in evaluating their clients’ properties. If there is reason to suspect a valuation issue, the accountant can work with an appraiser they know to confirm if there is a case to made, to build that case and to determine a resolution.
In most provinces, an accountant can represent the property owner in assessment matters and to mount an appeal. Getting to know the local assessor, and developing that relationship with a third-party appraiser, is key to being as effective in this role as possible. As stated above, to serve as the representative of a property owner in Ontario, you will have to cultivate a similar relationship with a lawyer or paralegal, since, in this case, legal representation is a requirement of the appeals process.
The key advice an accountant can give their client when engaging with an assessor is to keep calm, keep cool and talk about the issue with their assessment, not their property tax bill. Come forward with solid facts to support the case — this is how you can ensure the assessor will give your client a fair hearing.
John Clark is vice-president, tax and valuation, at Regional Group, which is based in Ottawa. Read his first two posts in this series, Why accountants should question property tax assessments and When an accountant’s client is paying too much property tax, online at Canadian Accountant.