“Tax Regime May Affect Local Govt Revenue” -Cepar, Proffers Solutions

MONROVIA– With the high expectation for the implementation of the Local Government Act passed into law in 2018 which will witness some revenue from the central government going to the local administration for development purpose, a policy Think Tank, the Center for Policy Analysis and Research(CePAR), said the current real property tax regime, if not significantly reformed, may undermine the adequate mobilization of real property tax revenues as envisaged under the LGA and hence the entire decentralization program.

In its report released on June 12, 2022, titled “An Assessment of Liberia’s Real Property Tax Regime: Implications for Local Government Financing, CePAR said the  LGA lists real property tax as one of the revenue streams to be used for local government financing but did not indicate how the tax will be designed and administered under the decentralization program and such policy undertakings are yet to be worked out. The Act, instead, according to the report referred such tax policy matters to the Liberia Revenue Code (LRC) and the report assessed the existing real property tax system under the LRC with respect to its policy design, administration and revenue performance.

“One of the revenue streams that will be transferred to local governments under the LGA is revenue from real property taxation. Section 4.4 of the LGA earmarks revenues from real property tax and income from property to the county, city, township and borough governments (LGA 2018). The LGA, however, did not specify how the tax is to be designed and administered at the local government levels. Instead, it refers such policy matters to the LRC. As a contribution to the ongoing discussions in this premise, this paper assesses Liberia’s real property tax regime with respect to the adequacy of its policy design, the effectiveness of its administration and its overall revenue performance; and highlights its implication for the effective financing of local governments as envisaged under the LGA and the decentralization program”, CePAR said.

The report authored by Molley Okomfo Kiazolu, who was recently appointed as the new Executive Director of CePAR, noted that the main policy defect of the current Liberian property tax system is the complexity of the rate and classifications regimes as well as the limitation of the valuation methods. “As noted in the analysis above, the current rate system is differentiated by property types and is also a mix of ad valorem and specific rates. Such complex rate design undermines compliance and incentivizes the misclassification of property. A more simplified rate system wherein a single ad valorem rate is applied across all property types is therefore recommended. In this way, any differences among property types will be captured by the valuation method”, it said.

The report said the main challenge with the current valuation approach is that Liberia does not have an established property market to derive the market value, and the self-declaration method has resulted into undervaluation, while the technocratic assessment has led to fewer assessments due to the lack of technical capacity at the LRA. CePAR said the way out is to continue with the self-valuation approach, albeit with some modification to minimize undervaluation, adding that a hybrid method that combines features of the area-based and value-based valuations is recommended.

“With respect to the classification of property, this paper recommends the continuation of the broad-based classification method, except that the sub-classification beyond the improved-unimproved divide should be based on location (for unimproved property) and usage (for improved property). The locational factor should, in turn, be informed by the level of economic deprivation of the place where the property is located. The recommendation here is to use the current county demarcation and put counties with similar levels of economic deprivation in the same zone. The sub-classification of improved property should consider whether the property is used for commercial or residential purposes. That is, the current sub-classifications of industrial use and agriculture use will pass for commercial use”, the report stated. 

While giving a background information on strengthening real tax administration in the country and the challenges to improve the measure, CePAR said the Liberia Revenue Authority, formerly the Revenue Department of the then Ministry of Finance, in 2013 established the first real property database, a feat that never existed which was  followed by other real property tax administration initiatives such as the real property mapping programs using mobile devices and GPS technology; a memorandum with the LEC, wherein the LEC will undertake to make real property tax compliance a prerequisite to connecting to the public electricity grid; a real property tax revenue sharing pilot project with Margibi County; and authorizing the payment of real property taxes via digital means, including mobile money payment platforms.

“Unfortunately, the reform initiatives undertaken by the LRA have not translated to an overall improvement in real property tax administration. As noted, the current database managed by the Real Estate Tax Division of the LRA contains approximately 25,000 properties and is heavily concentrated in Monrovia. Also, approximately 97 percent of the properties covered in the database are in Montserrado County, the county hosting the capital city. Real property tax collection in the remaining 14 counties is practically nonexistent”, the report further said.

CePAR maintained that the current lapses in real property tax administration can be attributed to a myriad of factors – ranging from the overall inefficiency of judiciary system in adjudicating tax cases to the poor design of the tax as well as lack of capacity at the LRA to administer and/or enforce the tax. Citing an instance, the group said the current conceptualization of due process by the court system and the constitutional emphasis of one’s right to his or her property limits timely enforcement in that the LRA cannot readily enforce real property tax collection through closure without getting approval from the court; and even when sought in time, it takes years to get such approval.

“That said, the focus of the recommendation here is on measures that squarely rest within the purview of the LRA. As already noted, the LRA has undertaken several administration measures that are geared to improving real property revenue performance. It is therefore the recommendation of this paper that such measures be continued with more focus on automation of the property database, enhancing digital means of payment, recruiting and training of staff, and mainstreaming of anticorruption in all tax administration initiatives. Corruption is a headline risk to the effective mobilization of revenue in Liberia, including revenue from real property taxation. For instance, the current revenue sharing pilot project with Margibi County is likely to fail if revenue retained by the local officials are misapplied or not used for the intended purposes”, the report stated.

Addressing the real property tax revenue performance over the years, CePAR said there has been a steady increase over the years, from US$3.66 m in 2012 to US$5.41 m in 2021, with the average collection during the period representing 1.03 percent of domestic revenue, 1.69 percent of domestic tax revenue and 0.15 percent of GDP. steadily increased over the years – from US$3.66 million in 2012 to US$5.41 million in 2021.

CePAR noted that despite the steady increase in actual collection, real property tax performance is not optimal when it is compared to the country’s potential and the performances of other tax jurisdictions, stressing that for instance, estimate using the current property database at the LRA puts annual estimated collection at US$13.48 million and that this amount is US$ 8.40 million more than the average collection for the period 2017 to 2021.

“Put another way, the 2021 collection of US$5.41 million is almost 60 percent less than the estimated potential revenue. When it is compared to ECOWAS or other regional performance, Liberia’s performance remains under par. Real property tax revenue as percent of GDP is below the 2019 ECOWAS average of 0.31 percent, Sub-Saharan Africa average of 0.51 percent and OECD average of 1.86 percent”, it said. 

CePAR in its summary recommendation said that the entire real property tax regime be redesigned to reflect Liberia’s context and acceptable international practices, specifically stating that a simplified and single rate regime be applied across all property categories; and that the market-based principle of valuation be changed to an area-based principle, albeit with a value factor that accounts for differences in location and usage of properties.

“Such value factors should be informed by a comprehensive study on property value by county or administrative district. Similarly, the exemption regime should be redesigned so as to incentivize compliance while at the same time discouraging abuse. With respect to tax administration, the paper recommends that the current tax administration reforms undertaken by the LRA not only be maintained but also be scaled up”, the report concluded.

Meanwhile,  CePAR has announced that Mr. Molley Okomfo Kiazolu has been appointed the new Executive Director, replacing Mr. Jacob Jallah who has been at the helm of affairs and has stepped down.

 Kiazolu is a fiscal and revenue expert with over a decade of Public Financial Management experience. He served as Assistant Commissioner of Policy Statistics and Research at Liberia Revenue Authority; and as Director of Tax Policy at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, Liberia.

He holds a Master of Economic Policy degree from Australia National University (ANU) and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) – with emphasis on Public Financial Management from the University of Liberia.

CePAR is a policy Think Tank that engages in policy research, and data collection and analysis. It partners with public institutions and developmental organizations to research and formulate public policy on pressing development and economic growth issues.

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