Issue of June 10, 2018
Mt. Province

70th Courier Anniversary Issue
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Over 600 Mt Sto Tomas tax declared lots probed
by Hanna C. Lacsamana

The Department on Environment and Natural Resources Cordillera is urging the local government of Tuba, Benguet through its Municipal Assessor’s Office (MAO), to cancel all tax declarations issued in the Mt. Sto. Tomas Forest Reserve (MSTFR) or face legal actions for what the agency claimed as a violation of the country’s Forestry Law.

This, after DENR Regional  Executive Director Ralph Pablo and the agency’s legal team warned they will be constrained to seek legal remedies against those who continue to disregard environment laws that harm efforts to protect and prevent further expansion of destructive activities within forest reservations.

During a meeting of stakeholders convened by the DENR-Cordillera on Wednesday to report on their compliance with the orders of the Court of Appeals, which in 2015 issued a permanent environment protection order over the forest reserve, the DENR-Cordillera reminded the municipality of Tuba, as well as all the other LGUs in the region, that tax declarations issued within forest and timberlands, such as the MSTFR, are illegal because these lands are inalienable and indisposable.

The PEPO or Writ of Kalikasan issued by the CA on May 6, 2015, ordered several respondents, Tuba Municipal Assessor Prudencio Pinkisan in particular, to permanently cease and desist from accepting applications for issuance of tax declarations over lands within the MSTFR, from processing applications which have already been filed; and from issuing tax declarations which have already been processed and approved.

The decision stemmed from the petition filed by environmental groups against former Baguio Rep. Nicasio Aliping, the DENR-CAR and Environmental Management Bureau-CAR, the Tuba municipality represented by then mayor Florencio Bentrez, Tuba MAO through Pinkisan, and Tuba Municipal Police Station, due to destructive activities and occupations inside the MSTFR.

Each respondent was ordered to comply with respective directives and to each submit a quarterly report of their compliance to the CA, a copy of which furnished the DENR-CAR, which was tasked to monitor and prosecute violators of environmental laws within the MSTFR.

Pinkisan, during the meeting, reported that since the PEPO was issued, his office has duly complied with the directive; has not issued, processed, and accepted applications for a tax declaration; and has zero assessment over the lots covered by the reservation.

He explained that the office is mandated to assess a property primarily based on actual use, and they have to assess the same for taxes even if it is on timberland or forest reserve.

“According to our existing assessment rules and regulations, if aproperty is occupied, it becomes taxable, under the Local Government Code,” Pinkisan said.

Still, the MAO has committed a violation under Presidential Decree 705 or the Revised Forestry Reform Code of the Philippines, according to the DENR.

Citing the testimony of Pinkisan quoted in the CA order, DENR-CAR OIC Assistant Regional Director for Management Services Atty. Cleo Andrada reminded that over 600 tax declarations have been issued in portions of the MSTFR since 1999, after the issuance of a provincial ordinance authorizing the Benguet Provincial Assessor’s office to give due course to applications for tax declarations over certain reservations in Benguet, until the ordinance was recalled in 2013, despite a memorandum from the DENR secretary in 2009 reminding LGUs to refrain from issuing tax declarations without the DENR’s clearance, citing provisions of PD 705.

“It is duly established that the MAO of Tuba has issued 637 tax declarations covering portions of MSTFR. The act of the municipal assessor is in blatant violation of PD 705,” Andrada said.

Section 75 of PD 705, in part, provides for imprisonment for a period of not less than two years nor more than four years and perpetual disqualification from holding an elective and appointive office, shall be imposed upon any public officer or employee who shall issue a tax declaration on real property without a certification from the Director of Forest Development and the Director of Lands that the forest land is alienable and disposable.

Atty. Renato Bestre, DENR-CAR Legal Division chief, whose office repeatedly requested the Tuba LGU for a list of issued tax declarations in MSTFR and the names of occupants to whom these are issued, said what the DENR asks for Tuba MAO to do, within its authority, is for it to motu proprio cancel all the tax declarations it issued, or ask the occupants to voluntarily surrender the same, to avoid having to file legal proceedings, which may entail graver sanctions on MAO’s part.

“The question now is do you have the authority as issuing office to cancel these tax declarations issued by your office? Because what we intend to do right now, but which we want to avoid if possible, is to follow the provisions of PD 705. We wanted to know if as issuing officer, you also have the authority to cancel, because it would be graver if we file cancellation proceedings before the court, may kaakibat ‘yun na criminal liability.

But should you deny our petition for cancellation proceedings for lack of jurisdiction, then we will be forced to file it in the court,” Bestre said.

Pablo, who presided said their continuing action is in compliance with the directive of Secretary Roy Cimatu reiterating the enforcement of PD 705 and to make sure local chief executives comply with it.

“This does not concern only Mt. Sto. Tomas and the PEPO. As long as the classification of a land is forest land, hindi puwedeng mag-issue ng tax declaration, so kung ang rason natin is pera (revenue), pera lang ‘yan. There are many other ways to generate revenue for the LGU, it’s not only from declaration for taxes. Mas malaki ang magiging damage because if by virtue of that tax declaration, trees will be cleared, mas malaki ang loss ng LGU,” Pablo said.

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