Christopher Thomas, Gleaner Writer
ALTHOUGH Trelawny was ranked as the worst parish in property tax collection in 2008, today things are much improved as the parish council has developed creative ways to improve compliance.
"We collected J$71 million in the last financial year and our target was J$82 million," said Councillor Garth Wilkinson, chairman of the Trelawny Parish Council and mayor of Falmouth.
"We were 70 per cent on target, but because of certain factors, such as the arrears, which is for previous years, that taxes had not been paid, the real taxes that should have been collected was only 61 per cent," added the mayor.
According to the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development, the parish currently has an arrears of $209 million.
Property tax is a tax charged on property owners to provide revenue to pay for public amenities or services that are provided by the local government body. It is charged based on the unimproved value of the property owner's land, which is the current land value at the time that value was calculated.
On April 1 each year, residential and commercial properties are subject to property tax, which pays for street lights, garbage collection and road maintenance in the parish.
In outlining the sum collected in property tax in the last financial year, Wilkinson admitted that outstanding taxes due from previous years had affected the amount that the council had amassed.
"We have done a lot of catching up," said Wilkinson. "In previous years, we were far behind in 2008, we were way below the other parishes."
"We have collected $108 million (in taxes) since April of this year, so far, we are 70 per cent on target for this year," noted Wilkinson. "Based on the target, we have about another $100 million to collect. I think that for our own goal, we have to focus on how we're going to get this tax collected over the next three to four months."
Unlike in Westmoreland, where overseas-based Jamaicans have the highest rate of compliance, in Trelawny, the majority of property tax is owed by landowners who are members of the Jamaican diaspora overseas.
"We realise that a lot of our landowners reside in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, so we mailed out all those notices that we had," said Wilkinson. "It cost the council J$250,000 just to buy stamps and send out all those mails," the mayor said.
Wilkinson said the council has tried some initiatives to ensure that landowners are aware of their obligations.
Tax office locations
To make life easier for property owners, the Trelawny Parish Council has established collectorates in Falmouth and Jackson Town, which allow for easy access regardless of where one resides in the parish.
"We have a tax office with two locations in the parish - Jackson Town and Falmouth. So for this financial year, Jackson Town is running at 40 per cent of collection, while Falmouth is doing nearly 80 per cent," said Wilkinson. "What we've done is to put in some days that we would announce where the collection can actually be done, and make it more convenient for the tax paying public."
The mayor outlined that Trelawny's property tax has been used to improve garbage collection and road infrastructure. However, he admitted that more could be done regarding the provision of street lights.
"We have two or three times a day to pick up garbage. There are areas where we have garbage collection once or twice a week, it depends on the population density and the arrangements we have made," said Wilkinson. "Since being in office, we've done more than 14 kilometres of roadways, putting in curve walls, drains and so on," said Wilkinson.
He added: "What we have been successfully getting over the past year is the repair of streets lights across the parish. But that is not sufficient to cover the amount of street lights that is actually needed," added Wilkinson.
Despite the council's bid to educate residents on the importance of paying property tax, some residents are of the view that they are not getting value for their taxes.
"So much work needs to be done in our area," said Chrystal Bradie, a resident of Duncans in the parish. "We heard that money was allocated to fix the road, and we haven't seen any money going toward that, or any work being done."
However, with the vast improvements that have taken place since 2008, Wilkinson is optimistic that going forward, the parish council will see greater compliance, which will improve its capacity to meet the services it is mandated to provide.
"I want to change how people view the parish council. The council provides a service, and it must have the wherewithal to deal with simple problems," said Wilkinson. "... and that is the direction where we are going."