B.C.’s Ombudsperson is calling on the government to change the way municipalities sell properties that have been forfeited because of unpaid taxes after he heavily criticized the way the City of Penticton sold the home of a vulnerable 60-year-old for less than half its assessed value and then evicted the woman.
In a report Wednesday, Ombudsperson Jay Chalke told the story of the woman he referred to as Ms. Wilson who was forced to sell her home after she failed to pay $10,000 in property tax. Mr. Chalke found that, as a vulnerable person, she experienced difficulties paying because of personal challenges despite having the funds available. He was also critical of the city’s communication with the woman, noting there were numerous errors and inaccuracies in written communications and that the consequences of the tax sales process were not clearly explained to her.
“Ms. Wilson was a vulnerable member of the Penticton community and just needed some extra assistance to pay her taxes,” Mr. Chalke said in the report. “The City of Penticton called Ms. Wilson once but did not contact the Public Guardian and Trustee or Interior Health who have the legal mandate to make inquiries as to whether an adult is vulnerable and needs support or assistance.”
Mr. Chalke noted in the report that he found the city’s conduct “disturbing.”
Donny van Dyk, Penticton’s chief administrative officer, said in a statement that the city recognizes the seriousness of the situation and the impact of Ms. Wilson’s loss.
Prior to the sale, the fair market value of Ms. Wilson’s home was assessed to be $420,000, however it was sold in the auction for $150,000. Because of this, she lost approximately $270,000 of equity in her home in addition to being evicted. This reflects the law in B.C., which holds that the minimum bid is tied to the taxes that are owing. This is contrary to provinces such as Alberta where the minimum bid is tied to fair market value, Mr. Chalke said.
“Selling someone’s home to pay a relatively small tax debt is an extraordinary power and I expect when a municipality takes such action it is scrupulously accurate,” he said.
Included in the report are five recommendations made to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. They addressed the issues of failed communication and the practice of linking minimum bids to taxes owing, and they provided amendments to better protect vulnerable persons in tax sales processes.
Minister of Municipal Affairs Josie Osborne was unavailable for an interview. Her ministry said it accepted all the recommendations in the report but declined to make anyone available to speak to the matter on the record.
Mr. Chalke has also called on the City of Penticton to compensate Ms. Wilson in the amount of $140,922.88. This represents roughly one-half of the equity she lost in the home.
The city has declined to make the payment.
Mr. van Dyk said the City of Penticton disagrees with Mr. Chalke’s findings.
“We were disappointed that the Ombudsperson chose not to include our complete and detailed response to the recommendations in the report, particularly information that does not support the Ombudsperson’s conclusions,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Chalke said the information that was excluded contained details that would compromise the privacy of Ms. Wilson.
“We only wanted to disclose in the report the material that we thought necessary to establish the grounds for the findings and recommendations,” he said.
In the report he called on the city to understand the gravity of its errors in its communication and treatment of Ms. Wilson. He believed the cumulative effect of these mistakes made the process unfair to her.
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