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Wednesday 27 August 2014

Charlie Weston: Devising fair property tax system a major challenge

Published 18/04/2012 | 05:00

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COMING up with a fair property tax that gains greater acceptance than the household charge is going to require the powers of Merlin the magician.

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But even the famed sorcerer from the legends of Camelot would find it hard, if not impossible, to design a property tax that will work smoothly in a country notoriously averse to paying a tax on homes.

Yesterday the economists in the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) published their stab at designing the dreaded tax.

Just the latest in a clutch of official and semi-official reports on how the tax might work, the ESRI paper does not make pleasant reading for the country's hard-pressed homeowners. Here we answer the key questions:

How much money is to be raised?

Various figures about how much should be raised from a property tax have been bandied about. The Commission on Taxation reported in 2009 that €1.2bn could be raised from a tax on homes.

However, the boffins in the ESRI have gone for a figure of €500m, citing comments by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in an interview in the Irish Independent.

How would the tax be levied?

The ESRI recommended that the tax should be based on the capital value of homes rather than the value of the site, even though this would mean Dublin homeowners would be hit harder.

Professor Tim Callan of the ESRI estimated that €500m could be raised by imposing the tax at a rate of €2 for every €1,000 of the value of a home. This would mean that someone with a home valued at €200,000 would be hit with an annual bill of €400.

However, this would take no account of the ability of different householders to pay the tax. This is where exemptions come in.

Those earning less than €15,000 should be exempt from the tax. For couples the exemption figure would rise to €25,000, with an extra allowance of €5,000 per child.

Above these income thresholds, there would be a tapered relief. Otherwise, there would be no incentive for the unemployed to take up a job.

So, what does that mean I will end up having to pay?

To raise €500m and exempt those with low incomes would mean the rest of the country's homeowners would end up being hit with higher bills.

This would mean setting the tax at €2.50 per €1,000 of property's value.

Working off a rate like this would mean a family with a €160,000 home would face a an annual bill of €400.

Even those with a modest house worth €200,000 would end up with a bill of €500.

A family with a home worth €312,000 or more would be getting a property tax bill for €780, according to the system set out by the ESRI.

What about the ranches in rural areas?

Opting for imposing the same rate across the country means that Dublin property, which tends to be more expensive, will end up with a higher tax.

This was the situation that scuppered the residential property tax in the 1990s. Just 5pc of homeowners were liable for that tax with most of them in Dublin.

The ESRI admitted that this was a drawback that could be repeated. But it said opting for a site valuation tax, which would take account of houses built on large plots in the country, is not something that is done in most other countries.

It also pointed out that we do not have sufficient data to impose a site valuation tax.

To be fair, the ESRI acknowledged that having higher property tax in Dublin would be a major drawback and said this must be looked at.

When will the tax be introduced?

The tax could be introduced as soon as the end of next year.

The debacle around the household charge, with four out of 10 homeowners yet to pay, has added urgency to plans to replace it with a property tax.

The household charge, which has a flat rate of €100 for all, is seen as unfair.

Will the tax mirror the ESRI design?

That is the €500m question and it is the job that consultant and former top civil servant Don Thornhill has been tasked with.

He is chairman of the National Competitiveness Council of Ireland, a former Department of Education secretary general and former chairman of the Higher Education Authority.

Dr Thornhill and a group of civil servants have been meeting for months now to come up with a system.

The committee is due to report by the summer.

But I paid stamp duty during the housing boom, will I get an exemption?

The Commission on Taxation recommended three years ago that those who paid stamp duty when they bought a property should have an exemption from the property tax for seven years from the year they bought.

The ESRI also said allowance must be made for those who paid stamp duty bills when they bought, without spelling out what exactly should be done.

But it does point out that stamp duty was lowered in recent years and any allowance should reflect the actual stamp duty amount paid, rather than giving a seven-year exemption.

I'm in mortgage arrears, what about me?

This is another thorny issue that has to be tackled. The ESRI recommended using mortgage tax relief to aid those who are behind on their homeloan repayments, rather than exempting these people.

What about older people?

Retired people on fixed incomes could be the big losers from a property tax. Systems where the property tax is imposed as a charge on the property, but not collected until the pensioner dies, are being considered.

Irish Independent

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