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Saturday, May 20, 2017

If Finance Minister Colm Imbert was smiling slightly more during yesterday’s Parliament session, he’d already given reporters a pretty good idea why, when he spoke at Thursday’s post-Cabinet media briefing.

Certainly it wouldn’t have had to with the Opposition’s high profile Couva demonstration yesterday.

(Though it might have had to do with UNC MP Barry Padarath’s brief “time-out” from the Chamber yesterday, which the House Speaker decreed.)

But Imbert wouldn’t have been smiling about the fact his colleague, Tourism Minister Shamfa Cudjoe’s $59,000 phone bill from her Bahamas trip has recently been more high profile than T&T’s tourism thrust.

(Nothing was heard about phone bills when Culture Minister Nyan Gadsby-Dolly attended the July 22-24, 2016 Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians’ Seminar also in the Bahamas. UNC Senator Kadijah Ameen, another participant said: “We attended, but I didn’t put my phone on roaming. The hotel had wi-fi suitable for business.”)

Imbert may have been happy that Communication Minister Maxie Cuffie introduced him as “the Prime Minister” at Thursday’s post-Cab briefing.

But his real reason for mirth was more likely money.

“Trinidadians don’t like to pay tax, so (the public response) was unusual,” Imbert explained regarding the “rush” to submit residential valuation forms.

“I’ve not seen people lining up in the hot sun to subject themselves to the payment of tax. There’s been an overwhelming response... they want to pay the tax,” Imbert opined, adding why he’d extended the submission date to June 5.

Visuals of long lines of homeowners submitting forms may cause Government to claim success over the Opposition’s lobby against the exercise.

But if Imbert had his day in the sun Thursday, the Opposition sought same yesterday with its Couva demonstration serving as pushback of sorts against Government’s property tax headway.

Imbert’s volte-face on last week’s declaration that there would have been no extension of the initial May 22 submission deadline, signalled various issues in the valuation form exercise.

Happily for Government which didn’t seem to have anticipated the “rush”, this yielded (according to Imbert’s figures), 150,000 forms up to Thursday—60,000 the previous week and improved receipt of 90,000 odd up to Thursday.

Not so happily, if that’s the total so far (as his statements indicate) since the forms were launched in mid-April.

The 150,000 represents little more than half of the 250,000 residential properties which Imbert said are already on the valuation rolls.

And that 150,000 is a lot less than the total 400,000 residences in T&T (including those on rolls) on which information is to be gathered.

So: not exactly full proof that all homeowners have bought into Government’s property tax initiative and “want” to pay.

Nothing was said on what might happen if the form submission exercise up to May 22 didn’t yield substantial returns.

By last Thursday’s receipt of—an at least promising—150,000 forms and with Monday’s deadline ahead, an extension was therefore, necessary.

But it should have been in mind during Imbert’s May 10 declaration—12 days before the May 22 deadline—that there’d be no extension. He’s indicated 60,000 forms were submitted that week.

And even with positive figures to Government’s credit—and public servants gamely striving to meet challenges—the system was obviously taxed by Trinis’ traditional last-minute swarming as long lines and assorted complaints confirmed

Still, challenged by the Opposition’s lobby for owners not to submit forms, Government would be relieved it received even 150,000 forms so far from the total 400,000 residences. Plus, the optics of the “rush” has added (somewhat) to its image on the issue.

How it captures the outstanding 250,000 residences by June 5 remains to unfold along with the residential exercise’s overall success level. The latter has implications for Government’s push with industrial and commercial properties—a tougher category.

Cognisant that Trinis “don’t like to pay tax”, Government knows well the sensitivities on this tax, rejected in 2009 by the PP, as well as Prime Minister Keith Rowley when he was warring with former leader Patrick Manning .

Possible complications with the exercise and/or future fallout when owners obtain their tax assessment, leaves little room for Government to rely solely on viewing the public’s “rush” as a rejection of the Opposition’s lobby against the tax.

That boast is contingent on real numbers rather than “rush”—including whether the next two weeks yields 150,000—250,000 more forms.

It’s to be determined whether Opposition moves to conjure up the notion of people being jailed for non-submission, actually assisted the stampede to submit forms.

And to what degree the UNC may have lost credibility on the matter because its PP incarnation failed to enact legislation which could have prevented the current tax format.

But more importantly, whether the current exercise fulfils Imbert’s projection of collecting revenue by September, the Treasury awaits with 500 million spaces in hope that it does.


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