Information is power.

I had a property assessment hearing this week, and it brought home the truism that information is power.

I moved to Canada about four years ago, and every year the market value of my house is assessed by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, a provincial body who essentially have a monopoly on the business. More on that later.

The first year I was assessed it was actually more than I paid for the house. When I filed a complaint the assessor called and explained that the entire street was over assessed. The average assessment for the street had increased by roughly 10%; with the correction my assessment had only increased by about 5%.

My next assessment showed a 17% increase, again with a average of 10% for street. I filed a complaint again. Same assessor, same story, so he lowered it to a mere 11% increase.

This year my assessment jumped 14.5%, this time with a street average of 9%.

Starting to see a pattern?

It sure seems that I am being punished for proving thatmy assessment was too high. I should note that even though the street assessment was too high, no assessments are ever corrected downward. And this time, a different assessor. A new assessor. She comes to my house a mere three weeks before my hearing, looks at it, and tells me she can’t understand why it would increase so much higher than every other house, so they will likely lower it.

One week before the hearing she calls and tells me that there is no way she can lower it; it is assessed just fine thank you very much, and I just don’t understand the assessment process.

One day before my hearing another person calls to ask me if I need any more information. I’m allowed to have some "comparables". He also explains that I just don’t understand how assessment works.

So I get to my hearing, and I realize exactly how assessment works. I am forced to defend myself and my point of view against an organization that has controls all of the information about all of the houses in my area, what they sold for, and what they are assessed for. All of that information, paid for with my tax dollars. They are even paid to be there while I am not. I am allowed to have a little bit of their information, if I know what to ask for.

I have one piece of useful information – the price of a house that sold a few months ago for much less than the assessed value, just across the street from me. This is market value after all. They tell me that one house proves nothing about the market, but then they starquizzing me about houses listed for sale. What does "asking price" for houses that have not yet sold have to do with anything?

Given my limited information I believe I made a compelling argument, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Imagine trying to win an argument when you have none of the information, but the other side has it all. And you paid for them to have it. Unlike the U.S., where information paid for with public money is… well, public, here in Canada that information belongs to a company that holds a monopoly lock on the business.

And there’s more. A company called Teranet, through an agreement with the province of Ontario, controls land registry and real estate information, also paid for by my tax dollars.

Information, and control of it, should be free to the public that paid for it. It shouldn’t be generating revenue for a select few that have been generously granted to it. And it certainly shouldn’t be used with impunity against those same citizens that paid for it.

A country is only as free as its public information.

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