This story was first published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Republished with permission.
MANILA, Philippines – Three companies owned or managed by the family of top Filipino billionaire Manuel Villar Jr. owe Las Piñas City at least P213.55 million in accumulated taxes and penalties, according to documents obtained by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
For decades, Brittany Corporation, Villar Sipag Center, and Villar Sipag at Tiyaga Foundation have not paid real property taxes for a number of assets in the city, including Mella Hotel, three Evia buildings, Portofino Commercial, and the Villar Sipag Center.
These three companies recently sought a waiver of the penalties totaling P71.6 million from Mayor Imelda Aguilar, sister-in-law of Senator Cynthia Villar, wife of the Villar patriarch.
Aguilar endorsed the companies’ requests to the city council, headed by her daughter, Vice Mayor Aguilar-Nery. The mayor said the companies needed to recover from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March this year, the mayor communicated to the vice mayor to grant amnesty on penalties incurred by residents and businesses, including the Villar companies. The matter remains pending before the city council.
PCIJ obtained documents and correspondences about the tax deficiencies of eight properties belonging to Brittany Corporation, two belonging to Villar Sipag Center, and one belonging to Villar Sipag at Tiyaga Foundation.
Members of the Villar family are either shareholders, officers, or simultaneously hold both positions in the companies and business entities that own the properties.
Villar Jr., Cynthia, and their son, Senator Mark Villar, built their business empire and launched their political careers in the city by winning a seat in the House of Representatives. The Villar couple’s daughter Camille has taken a page from their playbook; she is now a lawmaker representing the city’s lone district.
Forbes has listed Villar Jr. as the Philippines’ richest person in 2023 with a net worth of $8.6 billion or around P467 billion.
A summary of tax delinquents prepared by the city assessor’s office shows that 18 other properties owned or managed by the Villar family, whose documents are not available to PCIJ, have not paid taxes.
The summary shows 11 other Brittany properties not included in the letters obtained by PCIJ owing the city another P10.4 million.
It also shows two other Villar-led companies – Golden Haven Memorial Park Inc. and Fine Properties Inc. – failing to pay real property taxes from 1996 and 2018, respectively. They owe the city another P14.5 million.
The summary includes 300 properties. The city treasurer’s office sent notice to the owners of these properties in 2022.
PCIJ reached out to the office of Senator Cynthia Villar for comment. She is among the incorporators of Villar Sipag at Tiyaga Foundation and is a shareholder of Fine Properties, but she said she does not interfere in business concerns.
“The subject matter of your query involves purely corporate concerns, which does not involve my function as a senator,” she said in a statement her office sent to PCIJ.
“The perceived issue is well within the competence of the management team of these corporate entities and I do not interfere nor involve myself in these business concerns. Nonetheless, I will refer the matter to the senior officers of these corporations, for their appropriate action,” she said.
Mayor Aguilar and Vice Mayor Aguilar-Nery have yet to respond to PCIJ’s requests for comment as of this posting.
Brittany is 99.97% owned by Vista Land
Brittany Corporation, the luxury real estate development company, owes the city government at least P137.75 million in real property taxes and penalties for eight delinquent properties. Two of the eight last paid their taxes 14 years ago.
Brittany Corporation is 99.97% owned by Vista Land and Lifescapes Inc. (VLL), a publicly-listed company chaired by Villar Jr., based on its 2022 General information sheet with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The couple’s eldest son Manuel Paolo, one of the incorporators of the company, is listed as a 0.01% shareholder. Mark previously served as managing director while Camille is a member of the board and managing director of the commercial division.
The real estate development caters to the high-end market segment in Metro Manila. It is offering luxury houses from P10 million to P100 million.
Disclosures of Vista Land as of December 31, 2022, reported that “the Villar Family Companies held 74.42% of the total issued and outstanding common share capital of the Company and 80.65% of the total issued and outstanding common and preferred share capital of the Company.” These shares are held by the family directly or indirectly through Fine Properties.
Villar Sipag Center, on the other hand, operates a vast retail complex along the C-5 extension road in Barangay Pulang Lupa Uno in Las Piñas. It has unpaid taxes and penalties amounting to over P5.2 million for two commercial buildings – one housing a popular local fast-food chain and the other, a pharmacy chain.
Real property taxes for the fast-food restaurant have not been paid since 2015. The taxes for the drug store, which opened in mid-2016, remained unpaid since 2017 or practically for the most part of its operations. It was not clear if the restaurant and the pharmacy were only renters or were operated by the company.
The third company, Villar Sipag at Tiyaga Foundation Inc., has not paid its real property taxes and penalties for Mella Hotel since 2019 amounting to at least P70.6 million. The hotel opened in July 2018.
It’s a non-stock, non-profit organization established by the Villar couple in 1992. Its SEC records show Villar Jr., Cynthia, and children Manuel Paolo and Camille as incorporators. Its website also identifies Villar Jr. as chair, Cynthia as managing director, and Mark as secretary and treasurer.
A summary of tax delinquents prepared by the city assessor’s office shows that the 132-room building was owned by the non-profit, but the property’s website said Mella Hotel is “the newest venture in the hospitality industry by Vista Land & Lifescapes.”
Requests for tax amnesty
The three companies wrote letters to Mayor Aguilar on December 22 last year requesting the city government to waive penalties, interests, and surcharges for 11 of their 29 properties amounting to at least P71.6 million.
Aguilar endorsed the requests to the City Treasurer’s Office first “for evaluation and appropriate action” and later to the city council, headed by Vice Mayor Aguilar-Nery.
Aguilar is the wife of the late Vergel “Nene” Aguilar, Cynthia’s brother who served as city mayor for 18 years. Aguilar-Nery is one of their daughters.
A certain Romeo M. Sabater wrote the request for Brittany Corporation, while a certain Momar M. Santos wrote for Villar Sipag Center and the foundation. All their letters had no business letterheads and both representatives did not identify their legal identities in the companies.
An online search showed that Sabater is a division head at Brittany Corporation. He also served as a business development department head of another Villar-led firm, Primewater Infrastructure Corporation. Meanwhile, Santos is a longtime associate of Villar Jr. and has served different roles in the family’s companies.
On December 27, the Office of the City Mayor, through acting city administrator Reynaldo Balagulan, forwarded the requests of Sabater and Santos to the city treasurer’s office “for evaluation and appropriate action.”
Three months later, on March 21, 2023, Aguilar wrote a letter to Aguilar-Nery to grant tax amnesty on penalties incurred by local residents and businesses, including the Villar companies.
“Due to several restrictions imposed during the pandemic, the City of Las Piñas has experienced a significant decrease in revenue collection on certain real property taxes, fees, and charges,” Mayor Aguilar said in her letter to the vice mayor.
“With this, I would like to request your good office in your capacity as Presiding Officer of the Sangguniang Panlungsod to grant tax amnesty on incurred penalties, interests, and surcharges to help several of our residents and local businesses recover from the economic slump caused by the pandemic,” she added.
The tax delinquencies of the Villar companies, however, date back up to two decades before the pandemic. Only four of the 29 properties have arrears beginning in 2019 and 2020, the year the health crisis hit the country.
On March 24, the city mayor, again through the administrator, officially endorsed the requests of the Villar companies and other delinquent taxpayers to the city council. The council calendared the matter on March 27 and continues to deliberate on the matter to date.
PCIJ has no information if company representatives also requested tax amnesties for properties owned by Golden Haven Memorial Park, Inc. and Fine Properties, Inc.
Most of the properties – 16 of the total 29 – are located in either the C-5 extension road connecting Las Piñas and Parañaque or the Daang Hari road, officially known as the Las Piñas-Muntinlupa-Laguna-Cavite (LPMLC) Link Road.
As a senator, Villar Jr. was among those who pushed for these two road projects that passed through properties developed by his real estate companies. It stirred controversy ahead of his failed presidential run in 2010.
The Villars have maintained that their businesses did not benefit from their positions in government.
Decline in city income
The city treasurer’s office sent notices to the top delinquent taxpayers last year amid declining tax collection and city income during the pandemic.
Las Piñas’ net income dropped from P818 million in 2020 to P521 million in 2021, according to Commission on Audit (COA) reports. This was much lower than the income of neighboring cities – Muntinlupa (P895 million) and Parañaque (P1 billion).
The city’s tax revenue collections were also lower in recent years, according to reports from COA and the Department of Finance.
Las Piñas recorded an annual tax revenue of P1.7 billion from 2019 to 2021, way below Paranaque’s P5.5 billion and Muntinlupa’s P3.5 billion tax revenues for the same period.
The Local Government Code allows the collection of local taxes, say for real properties, to reduce local government units’ dependence on the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) and increase funding for social services and public infrastructure.
The IRA is the LGUs’ share of national government revenues.
Taxes redistribute wealth in a bid to reduce inequality, said former COA officer in charge Heidi Mendoza, who spoke to PCIJ about the importance of LGUs collecting taxes properly.
Those with more money, properties, and benefits should pay higher taxes, she said.
“When you don’t pay taxes, you are depriving not just the government but the poor people because funds for services come from taxes,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza said penalties should be paid, too, because these unpaid or delayed tax payments could have been used at the time when they were needed. “In budget execution, delays affect the predictability and timeliness of public spending, which then affect [the] implementation of services,” she said.
Under the law, failure to pay taxes may lead to the filing of civil cases or the seizure of assets.
The poverty incidence among families in Las Piñas, which has a population of 606,000, is at 2.5%. It is lower than the national average of 18% but higher than the Metro Manila average of 2.12%, based on 2021 statistics.
In comparison, eight Metro Manila LGUs have less than 2% poverty incidence among families. These are Manila, Mandaluyong, Marikina, Quezon City, Valenzuela, San Juan, Makati, and Muntinlupa.
At least P57-M funds could go to schools
A percentage of the taxes collected from real estate properties are supposed to go to the Special Education Fund (SEF), which is allocated to the local school board for the operation and maintenance of public schools in the city.
The fund could be used for the construction and repair of school buildings, facilities, and equipment, educational research, purchase of books and periodicals, and sports development.
The 11 properties of the three Villar companies, based on the city treasurer’s statements of accounts, owe a total of P57 million in SEF and P29.1 million in SEF penalties. This figure would be higher if the SEF and SEF penalties incurred by other delinquent properties are included.
Collecting unpaid real property taxes and penalties from Brittany Corporation alone would add a significant amount to the SEF.
Brittany – the biggest tax delinquent among the Villar companies – has been profitable. The company recorded P1.34 billion in real estate revenues as of December 31, 2022. Its revenue represents 11% of VLL’s total real estate revenues, according to the 2022 annual report submitted to the Philippine Stock Exchange.
This was a huge jump – a whopping 167% – from P504.4 million in 2021. VLL also posted an overall 6% increase in net income in 2022, from P6.9 billion in 2021 to P7.3 billion the following year.
Other companies on the list
Also on the list of delinquent taxpayers in the city are condominium developers Goldland Properties and Development Corporation, Madison Properties Inc., Ayala Land, and Sta. Lucia Realty and Development Company.
Some of them also requested a waiver of penalties.
Torre Sur Condominium, developed by Lapanday Properties Philippines, Inc. and Torre Lorenzo Development Corporation, incurred a total of P14.4 million in taxes and penalties from 2018 to early 2023, according to the documents.
In their letter to the mayor, the company said that their non-payment was not intentional and was merely an oversight due to the pandemic, adding that many of their tenants have so far failed to pay their association dues.
Another property owner, a private individual, blamed the property developer for her failure to pay real property taxes on her condominium unit.
She explained that the developer “had cheated and fooled” her over the last decade with regard to her unit’s title. She said the developer failed to pay the real property taxes while the unit was under its name. The unit has incurred taxes and penalties amounting to P325,859.34 as of January 2023.
Another property, a nearly 19,000-square-meter area now called Urbanville, has unpaid taxes for nearly 40 years but it was a subject of tedious litigation that reached the Supreme Court. Its owner earlier filed a pleading but the informal settler families won the case with finality in 2008. The property has pending dues amounting to P1.46 million as of December 31, 2022. – Rappler.com
There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.