Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Not so "simple"

The front page headline of today's Toronto Star read: "Office towers win tax cuts". The headline accompanied an article by John Spears of the City Hall bureau about a decision by the Assessment Review Board (ARB) that may give the owners of 12 of Toronto's biggest downtown office towers a property tax refund -- a big one. (The case is complicated and the amount of the refund is not clear -- but, according to the article, "the amounts in play are staggering".)

As a resident of Toronto, naturally I'm interested in the news. (If the tower owners do get a refund, that will leave a huge hole in the City's budget that may end up being filled in by hitting up residential property owners -- like me.) But, the item in the news story that caught my eye as a plain language consultant is the fact that it appears the case turns, at least in part, on the interpretation of a certain phrase -- an arcane legal phrase -- used in the definition of "current value" in S. 1 of the Assessment Act.

According to the article, "[T]he bank towers case was highly technical and hinged on what is meant by the words of the Assessment Act, which says assessment should be based on the value of a buidling "in fee simple, if unencumbered"."
The Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), the organization charged with assessing properties, argued the value of the towers should be determined based on their value fully occupied by rent-paying tenants. The tower owners said that the wording of the Assessment Act means the towers must be valued as though the buildings are unencumbered by tenants and leases.

The ARB agreed with the tower owners and held that MPAC's assessment method "contains a fundamental flaw", according to the Star article. Apparently the ARB rejected MPAC's submission (which had been joined in by the City of Toronto), saying the submission was "based on an incorrect interpretation of the words of the Act.".

Sure seems to me this confusion (not to mention all the legal costs incurred in bringing the action) might have been avoided if the Assessment Act were written in plain language.

FYI, apparent MPAC is considering appealing the ARB's decision. Stay tuned... I know I will!


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