Predictable, Fair and Transparent Market Value Assessments
Predictable, Fair and Transparent Market Value Assessments
Finance & Taxation - Provincial Policy
Issue(s): Non- residential property assessment values have often fluctuated, resulting in sudden, unexpected and significant increases of tax liabilities for some property owners. While changes are not uncommon, the lack of transparency, fairness, and predictability of non-residential property assessments impacts the ability of business to operate with a clear understanding of the value of their property and the expenses it incurs.
The Municipal Government Act (MGA) requires all properties to be assessed by the municipal assessor and prepared using mass appraisal methodology, to reflect the market value of the property1. Assessment notices for non-residential properties are then sent to taxpayers who have the ability to file a complaint heard by composite review board panels (CARBs) if the taxpayer feels the assessed value on the notice does not reflect the market value of the property.
Market value is the price a property might reasonably be expected to sell for, if sold by a willing seller to a willing buyer, after appropriate time and exposure in an open market.2 There are three approaches to determine the market value assessment of a property: the sales comparison approach which examines sale price of similar properties; the cost approach which is used for unique or new properties and reflects estimated replacement cost for the asset; and the income approach which evaluates properties based on their earning potential. The accuracy and reliability of an income approach analysis will depend on the availability of market data and the degree of comparability of the subject to other properties.
As per the Municipal Affairs Detailed Assessment Audit Manual, the assessor is expected to apply the appropriate valuation approach based on the availability of market information and property type. Although factors such as location and municipality size affect markets, assessors must value similar properties in the same manner (not necessarily to the same amount). However, over 5 properties in the same stratification are required with at least 15 properties being ideal for adequate market comparisons.3
For properties evaluated using the income approach, it is expected that appropriate income and expense data is collected and maintained, leading to development of a valuation model. Without the appropriate data, assessors are to time-adjust older sales followed by examining other municipalities for supporting information.4
If the data used to develop metrics5 is not reflective of the market, then the assessment values of properties will be inaccurate and can cause gross variation of assessment values year over year. This lack of predictability can have a damaging impact on business and property owners who expect their assessment value to be reflective of the property’s market value. To maintain a predictable and fair assessment system, when a miscalculation due to an error in data, calculations or assumptions has been identified under section 305(1) of the MGA, corrections should be applied consistently and to other similar properties.
Because the accuracy of an assessment value depends on accurate data, rates used in the assessment process should be determined by utilizing local knowledge, expertise and consultation. The results should be checked by an industry expert prior to the assessment roll being finalized to flag any irregularities and ensure that assessment values used resulted in a reflection of market value.
Similarly, providing an advance consultation period can prevent or potentially realize discrepancies before the assessment roll is finalized and subsequently reduce the number of complaints needing to be arbitrated through CARB. A comparison between Edmonton and Calgary suggested that savings as a result of a non-residential advance consultation process and a focus on pre-trial negotiation could be approximately $2 million dollars per year of Calgary’s review board budget.6 While not every municipality would see such large savings, providing steps which promote fairness and cooperation in the assessment process will also create fiscal responsibility. Advance consultation also provides business the ability to potentially resolve any disputes early rather than waiting for the arbitration process, thus giving a reasonable period of time to prepare for changes in expenses.
Additionally, subjective metrics such as visual appeal, and interior finish are often used to calculate rates such as rental income quality and are not based on a standard set of guidelines. Without clear criteria for assessors to follow, subjectivity used to calculate certain metrics harms the fairness of the valuation process. Moreover, assessors are able to change the classifications within metrics without physically inspecting a property. Because of the subjective and unpredictable nature of rental income equality, there is value in creating detailed standards to establish the assessment process as one which is predictable and equitable for all involved.
While it is understood that each year’s assessment is independent of the previous year and is not sufficient enough to draw a conclusion that an assessment is too high, it is reflective of the level of transparency and perceived trust that an assessment department has in its assessment process. The BC Assessment Authority provides free online access to assessment data, including previous years’ assessments and comparable property assessments to increase transparency of the assessment process.7 Making previous assessments available for non-residential commercial comparable listings indicates willingness for municipalities to work with the business community and increase transparency.
According to the Alberta Municipal Affair’s Guide for the Exchange of Assessment Information, the purpose of Section 299 and 300 of the MGA is for a person to access the information used in calculating the prepared assessment value but municipalities are not required to “provide detailed information to defend the assessment.”8 The challenge remains that there is only a bare minimum requirement as to what municipalities are required to provide through section 299 or 300 requests for non-residential properties. In order to promote fairness and transparency, optimal (not minimal) information should be given for taxpayers’ acceptance and understanding of their assessments, while still protecting privacy. Having thorough data in an assessment methodology report saves time of property owners and the assessment department when this information is readily available and easy to understand.
Additionally, the Government of Alberta should seek to make greater distinction of roles and responsibilities between the Province and municipalities to ensure consistent interpretations of policies and regulations. Role clarity encourages proactive governance, where key stakeholders are continuously engaged to identify and resolve issues; elevate operating, service and professional standards, and effectively monitor quality while promoting a predictable assessment system.
The assessment process must provide the government with a stable source of income while being administratively simple and efficient, subject to appropriate checks and balances, and transparent to all stakeholders. The government of Alberta should be committed to fostering a positive and predictable environment for businesses to operate and the ability to accurately predict expenses is vitally important to the sustainability and growth of any successful business. The aim should be to have a predictable, fair and transparent assessment process that will enable municipalities to create a level of confidence in the assessment system, lessen the negative affect on businesses and allow a reasonable period of time to prepare for changes in expenses.
The Alberta Chambers of Commerce recommends the Government of Alberta
- Provide clarity and direction in the creation of methodology reports including recommended metrics used, data collected, and application of rates which are reflective of local market conditions;
- Require municipalities to consult with local industry experts and stakeholders to gain market information and local expertise and knowledge;
- Provide specific criteria and guidelines for subjective metrics such as rental income quality and stratifications;
- Require physical inspections of a property to determine accuracy of such metrics including changes to income quality classifications;
- Require municipalities to flag irregularities and follow up with individualized consultation, education and information and applying corrections to the roll consistently for identified or similar properties with a 5% or greater error due to an error in data, calculations or incorrect assumptions;
- Increase transparency in the assessment process by recommending municipalities provide advanced consultation and provide optimal information through a section 299 and 300 requests;
- Recommend municipalities provide the provision of prior years’ assessments on assessment notices;
- Make greater distinction of roles and responsibilities between the Province and municipalities to ensure consistent interpretations of policies and regulations; and
- Provide assessment departments with guidelines for best practice.
- Section 5 and 6 of the Matters Relations to Assessment Regulation (MRAT)
- MGA 284 (1): http://www.qp.alberta.ca/documents/acts/m26.pdf
- Municipal Affairs Detailed Assessment Audit Manual – pg. 8 https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/08608017-884d49f4-b3ee-9ba23d907299/resource/5e715f84-616f-4b96-b0de-3062863bd9b5/download/2016-detailedassessment-audit-manual-august-2016.pdf
- Municipal Affairs Detailed Assessment Audit Manual – pg. 13
- These can include market rents, vacancy rates, expense ratios, capitalization rates, income quality, gross rent multipliers.
- An Independent Review Calgary’s Non-Residential Property Assessment & Complaint Systems
- Review of BC Assessment Authority: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/british-columbians-ourgovernments/services-policies-for-government/internal-corporate-services/internal-audits/bc-assessmentauthority-review.pdf
- Guide for the Exchange of Assessment Information – pg. 3 : https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/b715d4e3-78ff4cb5-8893-c6544d16156e/resource/9c3155ed-fe5d-47ad-a