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Tax payment confusion leads to RMOW arrears fine

Non-resident's bank payments of property tax end up with Tourism Whistler without her knowledge

A woman who rents out her Whistler Village condo when she isn't using it is warning others to be aware of a complex property tax payment system that led to her money going to the wrong payee, resulting in fines.

Pauline Heaton was fined $25 by the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) for nonpayment when two tax deposits wired by her bank to the RMOW ended up in the account of Tourism Whistler instead.

The mistake, according to Heaton, came because the RMOW and Tourism Whistler share the same account number for such deposits. The first notice the Tsawwassen resident had of the mistake was when she received notice of a $25 fine for arrears from the RMOW. The issue is not the amount of the fine, but that it was necessary to levy it at all, she said.

Heaton has owned the condo at Northstar Stoney Creek for over 15 years.She pays around $3,000 in property tax per year to the RMOW, and $365 for Tourism Whistler assessment fees.

She went to her local Royal Bank branch to pay the property tax on the condo, $500 in July and $600 in August, saying she brought her form and cheque in order to pay it on time.

"Come fall I got a note (from the RMOW) that I hadn't paid my taxes on time... and I thought 'Wow, how did I miss that!" Heaton said.

Because she had been recently bereaved, she thought that she had made an error. "When I went to pay the $600 in August it turned out I was still behind and I thought 'How can this be happening?' It became clear to me that both those payments had gone somewhere else. Then I found out that Tourism Whistler was sitting on $1,100 of mine," Heaton said.

She had her bank trace the payments, then phoned Tourism Whistler. She explained the situation to the RMOW but was told she was still on the hook for the fine.

Heaton was told the mistake was the bank's fault, but she believes the problem lies with both groups sharing the same account number for deposits.

"We had a conference at the bank, and the bank said to me that unless they're told to look for it they just type in the account number, up it comes and it says Whistler," Heaton said. "I'm no different than someone living in Europe who is not on top of what is going on in Whistler. The fine may be just $25, but it still matters. Authorities could put their heads together in order to find a way to stop this from happening."

Karen Playfair, Tourism Whistler's vice-president of finance, confirmed that while their account had the same number as the RMOW, they remained separate vendors.

"Tourism Whistler is the Whistler Resort Association and, of course, they're the Resort Municipality of Whistler," Playfair said. "All that happened was she made a payment to her bank and the payment would have been put against her account, depending on where her (Tourism Whistler) account was... If it was fully paid it may have shown up as a credit."

Playfair said the two account numbers have been the same for 30 years due to shared "strata plan and strata lot" zoning. "I sympathize. I'm sure she's frustrated that she had to pay a tax penalty."

The RMOW turned down an interview request regarding Heaton's complaints, stating that Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden would not be available to discuss the matter "given the nature of the issue."

It did, however, release a statement: "Annually, Resort Municipality of Whistler receives more than 12,000 property tax payments by various means, including payments processed by financial institutions. Any unpaid tax is subject to penalty after the due date.

"The municipality is sometimes made aware that a payment intended for the municipality has been received by another organization. Most often the cause appears to be that an organization with a similar or like name has been selected by or on behalf of the payor. The municipality does not control the payment until it has been received by the municipality.

"The number of times that the municipality is made aware that a payor has paid the wrong organization... is usually less than 10 times per year and, it is not limited to Tourism Whistler."