Carl Gilchrist, Gleaner Writer
OCHO RIOS, St Ann:ST ANN, THE home of Ocho Rios - one of the Caribbean's and the world's most popular tourist destinations - is Jamaica's largest parish.
Lying in the tourist belt along Jamaica's northern coastline, property values in St Ann run very high.
It could be expected, therefore, that property tax evaluation and subsequent collection in the parish would be among the highest islandwide.
However, the arrears for property tax collection in St Ann has almost tripled in six years, moving from $40.2 million per year in 2006/2007 to $111.2 million in 2012/2013, for an overall arrears total of $494.3 million over the period. St Ann has the sixth-highest arrears of all parishes.
There is so much that $494 million could do for a parish council, burdened with the responsibility to provide proper garbage collection, street lighting, and water in some instances.
For the 2013/2014 financial year, the property tax collection target for St Ann is $552.7 million, with over $243.9 already collected over the period April to July.
Property tax is a charge levied on all properties in Jamaica, and should be paid by the owner, occupier, mortgagee or other person in possession of such property.
The tax is calculated on the unimproved value of the property, that is, on the land itself, and not on the value of buildings that may be on it.
The tax is calculated at a flat rate of $1,000 for properties valued up to $100,000. Properties valued over $100,000, but less than $1,000,000, attract an additional 1.5 per cent for each dollar above $100,000. Properties valued over $1 million attract a 2.0 per cent tax for each additional dollar.
Despite the climbing arrears figure, mayor of St Ann's Bay, Desmond Gilmore believes that persons are not really objecting to paying property taxes.
"I don't believe that people don't really want to pay taxes, they just want to know that they are getting the services that the taxes are meant to provide," said Gilmore. "If they get the services, I don't believe they will have a problem paying the taxes."
One gentleman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed sentiments similar to that of the mayor.
Gilmore noted that there seems to be more compliance among the business community.
Over the years, the tax department has sought to make it easier for persons to pay property taxes, including the introduction of payment options, which includes paying the taxes annually, biannually, or quarterly.
Payments made after April 30 are considered late and attract a 10 per cent penalty. Unpaid amounts after 30 days beyond April 30 will attract an additional 15 per cent interest per year.
These payments can be done online or by visiting one of the several tax offices located islandwide where payment is accepted in cash or by debit or credit card.
Recently, the Government introduced an exemption that has been designed to assist, especially pensioners who might be unable to pay the new property tax rate that was recently introduced.
Applicants should fill out the prescribed form, available at the post office or parish council office, and submit same. A committee set up for the purpose, will review the application. If approved, the person will not have to pay the new rates, but would be required to pay his/her property tax at the old rate.
The exemption is approved for one year and a new application has to be submitted each financial year.
"We recognise that pensioners etc. might be struggling to pay the new rates, hence this measure," explained Gilmore.
"But we are trying everything to make people pay," he added. "I think we might even resort to payment agencies so as to make it easier for them."
A stringent measure designed to force compliance is the requirement of property tax receipt when a property is being sold.
Currently, there are three tax offices in St Ann where taxes may be paid - St Ann's Bay, Moneague, and Brown's Town.
Property tax is used for a variety of purposes including:
Maintenance and expansion of street lighting;
Collection and disposal of solid waste;
Community infrastructure and civil improvements;
Administration of local authorities;
Repairs to fire stations, and
Rehabilitation of parochial/farm roads.