IF public sympathy has been in scarce supply for the owners of ‘second homes’ or or "Non-Principal Private Residence" to use the convoluted language of bureaucracy, it is growing as it becomes increasingly clear that much of the blame for this mess lies squarely at the door of the Department of the Environment.
The upshot is that due to bureaucratic bungling, tens of thousands of people owe local authority debts ranging up to €4,200. With penalties and interest charges, that could increase to over €7,200 by Monday.
At first glance there was little empathy for people facing such demands. Besides the fact that most people are not well off enough to own a second home, the reality is that this payment has been hanging over them since 2009.
But things are not what they seem and that explains why support is growing for those trapped in what can only be described as a bureaucratic mess of confusion, a scenario for which officialdom appears to be largely responsible.
Part of the problem is that many of those who now face this predicament, especially people living abroad, seem to have been unaware of the local authority demand until it dropped through the letter box.
The problem is that even if Irish people with property here are living abroad, they face Non-Principal Private Residence (NPPR) tax demands. The difficulty has been caused and the sums involved have soared because of the policy of advertising the tax in the Irish newspapers on the presumption that those living outside the country would see them.
Similarly, if a person resident here moved out of their house, for example to work elsewhere or move in with the parents because they couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage, it became their NPPR. While many people were unaware payments were due, others simply kept their head down in the hope of getting away with it.
Questions need to be answered and it is good to see that the Ombudsman has now become involved in this sorry affair. In a welcome twist, Meath County Council has offered to deduct 50% of the money owed. The confusion has deepened because those who owned a second home, rental or holiday home, were liable to pay a separate tax on top of the property tax.
In a piece of departmental footwork worthy of the ‘Yes Minister’ genre, the Government has ensured that councils were in the firing line, effectively passing the buck by making them responsible for collecting the unpopular property taxes for local use after depriving them of other sources. In some areas even people exempt from property tax have received demands.
For its part the Local Government Management Agency is advising people who have genuine difficulty paying the charge to contact their local authority before close of business tomorrow with a view to arranging more flexible terms on a means tested basis.
Clearly, there is an overwhelming case for extending that deadline. While the agency estimates that tens of thousands of people may be involved in one way or another in this chaotic situation it admits it does not have an accurate figure.
Meanwhile, as government ministers wind up the spin about tax and pay concessions in the Budget, the reality is that water charges and the next round of property taxes are coming down the track. And they will hit everyone.
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