Karrie Williams, Gleaner Writer
AS A result of non-compliance by persons falling within the tax net, the St James Parish Council has collected less than half of the approximately J$637 million in arrears that should have rolled into its coffers.
Property tax, which is levied on the unimproved value of lands, is an important source of municipal revenue as it is used primarily for the provision of public amenities including street lights and garbage collection services.
"The rate of compliance for property tax is a mere 40 per cent, which in dollar figure amounts to $254,666,068.98 for the financial year ending 2012-2013," Ricardo Rhoden, director of administration at the St James Parish Council, told The Gleaner.
"We spent $86 million on the maintenance of street lights and approximately $101 million was used for solid waste management," noted Rhoden. "We also used approximately $23 million to cover various administrative expenses relating to the provision of these amenities, and the remainder was divided up between various community-development projects such as the de-bushing of playing fields."
Mayor of Montego Bay Councillor Glendon Harris said he is dissatisfied with the low level of compliance; arguing that the amounts collected for the last financial year were insufficient to provide for the necessary public amenities throughout St James. He also expressed concern over what he said is an underappreciation for the privilege of land ownership throughout the parish.
"Our forefathers fought for the right to own land and there was a time when only landowners could vote," the mayor said. "Those persons that recall the struggle to own land used to go out on April 1 every year to pay their property taxes.
What has happened now is that the generation that really appreciated owning a piece of land is gone and the current generation does not seem to be cognisant of the value to own land, so they don't see it as being of any great significance."
On account of the high level of non-compliance, Rhoden told The Gleaner that the parish council has embarked on various public education initiatives to encourage more persons to pay their property tax. He also said to date, such initiatives have been bearing fruits.
"We have implemented several communication strategies to educate persons about the usage of property tax and why it is necessary for them to be compliant. These include property tax fairs, media advertisements and community meetings.
Since we have launched these initiatives, there has been an improvement in the payment of property tax throughout the parish, as more persons now have a greater understanding of its importance in providing the necessary social and infrastructural services throughout their communities."
Delinquent property owners in St James could be in for a rude a awakening as the council is currently formulating a plan to haul them before the tax court.
According to the Property Tax Act, either a landowner or the person who occupies a piece of land is duly obligated by law to pay the required taxes.
When The Gleaner spoke with members of the public and business community through St James about the payment of property tax, many were of the opinion that this tax should be paid as it provides funding for the implementation and maintenance of necessary amenities. However, while there was a general agreement over payment, some said they were experiencing difficulties in staying compliant, stating that "times were hard".
"I have no objection in paying property tax as long as it is being utilised as it is supposed to," said Harry Johnson, a resident of Coral Gardens. "The problem I have is that we are paying so much tax in Jamaica, but we don't see any significant benefits. Times are hard now and, as such, certain factors must be taken into consideration to render relief to those who find it difficult to pay their property taxes. I feel that relief should be rendered to retirees and others who might be finding it a challenge to remain compliant.''
In making reference to those persons who are having a difficulty meeting their tax obligations, Harris said that a parish review committee for discretionary relief on property taxes was recently reconvened to provide assistance.
At the last meeting of this committee, which was held in July, 30 applications were submitted to the council for property tax exemption and/or relief. The mayor said those are now under review; and if successful, applicants will be able to benefit from waivers of up to 50 per cent on their property tax.
Other parishioners who would like to also benefit from this relief initiative are being advised to submit their applications to the St James Parish Council. However, applicants must be able to prove to the committee that they are experiencing significant hardships such as illness or a disability, which prevent them from paying the full amount of their property tax.