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(506) 2223-1327               Published Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 213       E-mail us
Jo Stuart
Real Estate
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An A.M. Costa Rica editorial
Sala IV should ashcan unfair 'luxury home tax'
The Sala IV, when asked, should void the luxury home tax because it is unfair.

The Dirección General de Tributación followed the law when it set up a valuation system based on the estimated construction cost of a new dwelling less depreciation.

That's a terrible and unfair way to determine value. Everyone has heard the real estate phrase location, location, location. In real estate the value frequently is greater than or much less than the sum of the parts.

Take the luxury home occupied by President Óscar Arias Sánchez in Rohrmoser. Would it have the same value if it were suddenly transported to Cristo Rey or some other barrio where gunshots punctuate the night? Or what would the value be if the home suddenly were transported to a hillside above Dominical? The changes in value are far greater than adjustments outlined by Tributación for raw land.

The whole idea in real estate is that the final product is worth a lot more than the sum or its parts. That is why there are developers. Typically a builder or investor seeks an additional 20 percent in value in new construction.

The favored approach in evaluating residential real estate is the comparison method. If a home sold for $160,000, then the assumption is that a similar home in the same area is worth about the same with adjustments for any unique improvements, such as a swimming pool or horse barn. The Asamblea Legislativa, mostly lawyers, did not specify the comparison approach because they knew that they and their fellow notaries have been lying through their teeth for years about the sales price of properties to cheat the tax man.
But a team of professional appraisers probably could come close to establishing true market value even if they had to discover some sales prices informally for comparison.

Instead, Tributación, following the orders for the Asamblea, wants every homeowner to become his or her own appraiser. This is something for which professionals go to school. It is idiotic to think that every homeowner can fill out a form to determine the value of the property. This is an unconstitutional imposition on a citizen's time and a misuse of political power.

Another problem with the law is the way it kicks hotel owners when they are down in a poor economy. They, too, must provide an estimate of value based on the construction cost of their hotel or pension. Anyone except a legislator would agree that the income approach to value is required here. How much is the hotel worth as a generator of income? Some gigantic white elephant high in the faraway mountains does not have the same value as a Central Valley hotel perking along with 95 percent occupancy. But for Tributación the value is similar.

There are other systemic flaws in the new law. A law that only taxes property above 100 million colons seems to be at least discriminatory.

A general tax of all homeowners would be a fair way of generating money to eliminate slums, as the current law proposes to do. People with smaller homes should participate in such a socially worthwhile venture. But then they might not re-elect their legislator's political party.

The Sala IV should void this law, and legislative staffers should go back to the drawing board . . . after passing an intelligence test.

Contract to fix bridge was in the works for full year
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The transport ministry said Tuesday that a bidding process to fix the bridge over the Río Grande de Tárcoles, among others, took a full year and survived five appeals by contractors.

The ministry said that the Contraloría de la República rejected the last appeal Oct. 19. 

It was Thursday, Oct. 22, when the bridge collapsed, a converted school bus tumbled into the river with 39 persons aboard and five persons died.
"It's a shame that the bureaucratic system and process made it that the solution arrived two days before the bridge collapsed," said Alejandro Molina executive director of the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad, the agency in charge of the highways and bridges.

Molina and the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes is credited former minister Karla González with pushing to get the contracts approved. She has resigned. Meanwhile, the central government is seeking more funds to fix up other sagging bridges in the country.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 213

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Proposed credit card rules
gives users more rights

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The economics ministry had put forth a proposed decree that would protect and provide more rights to holders of credit cards.

Eduardo Sibaja, minister of Economía, Industría y Comercio said that the use of credit cards has experienced an exponential increase and that the current rules need to be reviewed.

The proposed decree is open for public comment for 10 days following its publication in the La Gaceta Friday.

The decree that would also have to be signed by President Óscar Arias Sánchez is some 24 pages. It includes rules on the protection of the cardholder's personal data.

It also includes a rule to prevent cloning of credit cards by crooked store clerks. The rule says the card must always be in view even when it is being run through a machine.

There is a section on the responsibilities of cardholders, too.  The proposal also includes a proposed credit card statement that gives a clear statement of interest and the total amount owed. The proposal in Spanish is HERE.
Shannon sent by U.S.
to strongarm Micheletti

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The Obama administration is sending a team of senior officials to Honduras today to try to expedite a settlement of the political crisis spawned by the ouster in June of elected President José Manuel Zelaya. The deposed leader remains at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa.

The Obama administration had preferred to let the Organization of American States and its designated mediator, Costa Rican President Óscar Arias Sánchez, take the lead role in Honduran diplomacy. But it is now stepping up U.S. involvement with settlement talks stalled and a planned presidential election in Honduras looming in little more than a month.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said a team headed by Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Dan Restrepo, White House staff director for Latin America, will urge both sides to show flexibility and redouble efforts to bring the crisis to an end.

Interim President Roberto Micheletti, who has headed the government since Zelaya was detained by soldiers and deported in late June, has refused to accept the return to office of the deposed leader as demanded by all other Organization of American States member states.

Micheletti contends Zelaya's ouster was not a coup, and that the troops who put him on a plane to Costa Rica acted legally after he had unconstitutionally sought to extend his term in office through a plebiscite.

State Department spokesman Kelly, who said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to both principals in the crisis Friday, said the crisis needs to be resolved quickly in line with Organization of American States settlement guidelines if the Honduran election planned for November is to have any legitimacy.

"I think it's getting quite urgent. What we want is to see an election, which is coming in about exactly a month, to enjoy the kind of international legitimacy that the people of Honduras deserve," he said. "We have said all along that we've made this a priority and wanted to be as helpful as we could to try to bring this to a successful resolution. Talks on Friday seemed to break down and it was at that point that the secretary decided to get involved directly."

The U.S. team, expected to be in Tegicigalpa through the end of this week, will meet with both Micheletti and Zelaya, who has been sheltered at the Brazilian embassy in the capital since slipping back into the country five weeks ago.

A senior State Department official said the sides are in agreement on all terms proposed by Organization of American States mediator Arias except for critical language providing for Zelaya to return to office and complete his term, which ends in January.

The deposed leader has said he would renounce any ambition to hold on to power beyond January despite his previous backing for a referendum that would have allowed him to run again in next month's election.

State Department spokesman Kelly also expressed sadness Tuesday over the death of Enzo Micheletti, a nephew of the interim president, who had gone missing several days ago and whose body was discovered Sunday in a northern Honduran town.

Kelly, who extended condolences to the family, said he had no information on the motive in the killing of the Micheletti nephew, who was found shot to death along with another man.

Honduran officials have said they are treating the death as a local criminal case and that it does not appear to be related to the political crisis. 

Avoiding five health risks
can hike life expectancy

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Addressing five critical risk factors — underweight childhood, unsafe sex, alcohol use, lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene, and high blood pressure — could add almost five years to global life expectancy, according to a new United Nations report.

These five factors are responsible for one quarter of the 60 million deaths estimated to occur annually, said the U.N. World Health Organization, which published “Global Health Risks.”

A health risk is defined in the report as “a factor that raises the probability of adverse health outcomes.” It looked at 24 of them which are a mixture of environmental, behavioral and physiological factors – such as air pollution, tobacco use and poor nutrition – and estimated their effects on deaths, diseases and injuries by region, age, sex and country income for the year 2004.

The report also pointed to the combined effect of multiple risk factors, noting that many deaths and diseases are caused by more than one risk factor and may be prevented by reducing any of the risk factors responsible for them.

For example, eight risk factors alone account for over 75 per cent of cases of coronary heart disease, the leading cause of deaths worldwide.

These are alcohol consumption, high blood glucose, tobacco use, high blood pressure, high body mass index, high cholesterol, low fruit and vegetable intake and physical inactivity. The World Health Organization added that most of these deaths occur in developing countries.

“Understanding the relative importance of health risk factors helps governments to figure out which health policies they want to pursue,” said Colin Mathers, coordinator for mortality and burden of disease at the World Health Organization.

“In many countries there is a complex mix of risk factors,” he added. “Countries can combine this type of evidence along with information about policies and their costs to decide how to set their health agenda.”

The report also found, among others, that more than a third of the global child deaths can be attributed to a few nutritional risk factors such as underweight childhood, inadequate breastfeeding and zinc deficiency. Also, unhealthy and unsafe environments cause one in four child deaths worldwide.

In addition, 71 per cent of lung cancer deaths are caused by tobacco smoking, while obesity and being overweight causes more deaths worldwide than being underweight.

Agents say there was no abduction

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A daily newspaper said Saturday that a 14 year old had been abducted near Sarapiquí by narcotraffickers who wanted to use the boy as a drug courier.

Not so, said the Judicial Investigating Organization. The boy left the home after an argument and stayed with a neighbor for awhile, the agency said. The boy has a history of being a runaway, the agency added.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 213

Sala IV will hear oral arguments on Crucitas mine project
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The company that wants to develop an open pit gold mine in northern Costa Rica has a Sala IV hearing date.

The company is Industrias Infinito S.A., a subsidiary of the Canadian firm now called Infinito Gold Ltd. Infinito Gold said that its Costa Rican firm was asked to appear Nov. 12 before the constitutional court. Such hearings are infrequent but not unusual. The judicial panel seeks to further review the case over and above the extensive written material that has been submitted, said Infinito Gold.

The Calgary-based company said that the magistrates will review the technical and legal aspects of the Crucitas gold mine and hear from those who challenge the legality of the permits for the project. The gold project got a land use change and a permit from regional environmental officials in San Carlos after President Óscar Arias Sánchez issued a decree Oct. 13, 2008 authorizing the actions. Arias said the project was in the national interest.

The company began to clear trees at the site where it hopes to excavate the gold-bearing material. The Sala IV suspended the tree-clearing activities a few days later after local environmentalists appealed.

The company will get a chance to outline its position at the hearing, too. The session is scheduled for one day but may be longer.

After the Sala IV suspended the work at the mine site, the nation's chief prosecutor stepped into the controversy and announced he was opening an investigation against Arias and the environmental minister. Both men may have committed a delito, a felony, when they authorized the cutting of trees at the site of the proposed mine, the Poder Judicial press office reported at the time.

The prosecutor, Francisco Dall'Anese Ruiz, cited Arias by name and also Roberto Dobles Mora, now the former
minister of Ambiente, Energía y Telecomunicaciones in the announcement. There has been no follow-up announcement on the status of the criminal case.

The allegation is one of prevaricato, according to the Poder Judicial. The Costa Rican Codigo Penal says that is a crime when a judicial or administrative official issues an order that is contrary to the law or not founded in fact. Trees are considered protected, and the Sala IV just issued stronger protection for a type of tree found on the mine property. The crime carries a prison term of from two to six years.

Infinito has said it would plant 50 trees for every one that was to be removed from the mine and tailings area.  The mining and tailings area is a mixture of pasture and forest which has already been partially harvested in the past before it was under the company's control, said Infinito.

The project has been frozen since.

Two Sala IV magistrates visited the site Sept. 11 and got a tour of the proposed mine. Infinito said that the magistrates also witnessed the extensive social and educational programs that had been implemented over the last several years in the small communities surrounding the project area.

The Sala IV hearing will not be about the allegations against Arias.

Infinito Gold said that its lawyers here have told it that the Sala IV would make a decision within 30 days after the close of the hearing.

The main concern of environmentalists is not the trees on the site. They have been expressing concern for years that the company would use harmful chemicals to leach the gold from the rock and that these chemicals might flow into the nearby Río San Juan.

The government of Nicaragua, which has the river in its national boundaries, also has expressed concern.

Arias anti-crime project seeks to repair the social fabric
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Arias administration is attacking the rising crime with a program that appears to have as its slogan "Can't we just get along?"

President Óscar Arias Sánchez announced the project Tuesday. It is under the name Redes para la convivencia, comunidades sin miedo. That translates to "networks for living together, communities without fear."

The Spanish government has donated $3 million to the project. Also involved are several United Nations agencies.

The project will be put into operation in the cantons of Los Chiles, Limón, Santa Cruz, Aquirre, San José, Desamparados, Heredia, Montes de Oca and Moravia.

The initiative has as a priority to provide the adolescent population with a local system of protection, a community environment, conflict alternatives and early attention to the risks connected with drugs and guns, according to the announcement.

Arias said that solving the problem of citizen security will take a lot of time but that he is certain that his administration has installed the basis for a policy of citizen security focused not only on the consequences but above all
on the causes. "If we do not treat the problem at the root, if we do not address the urgent necessity to repair the social fabric of our country, all solutions will be transitory," said Arias.

The project is in keeping with the philosophy of the Arias administration, also reflected in the pronouncements of Laura Chinchilla, the former vice president who is now a candidate for president. That philosophy is that the way to reduce crime is to address the social problems rather than make punishment stiffer.

Arias said that the project would recognize that youth and insecurity were linked. The project would seek to break the cycle in which for decades the youth feel threatened and as a consequence isolated, said Arias. The isolated youth reject the rule of society and turn to violence, he said.

A number of studies of violence have recognized that crime and violence are linked to the age of a population.

This project is one of four that the administration is financing with a total grant from the government of Spain of $16.5 million, said Casa Presidencial.

Among these are programs to develop tourism and agriculture with an emphasis in the creation of green employment and a program to increase youth employment.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 213

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European Investment Bank makes $211 million hydro loan

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The European Investment Bank has granted a $211 million loan to the two subsidiaries of the Gas de France-Suez Group holding the concession for the Dos Mares project in Panamá.

The loan will finance part of the construction and operation of the Guanaca, Lorena and Prudencia hydropower plants on the Río Chiriqui in western Panama. With a total installed capacity of 117.5 MW, the three plants will be integrated into the river’s existing hydroelectric system consisting of the Fortuna and Canjilones plants, the bank said. The project will help to meet the rapidly growing  electricity demand in Panamá in an environmentally sustainable way using available water resources, it added.
This is the European Investment Bank’s sixth operation in Panama, where it has now loaned a total of 719 million euros, including $500 million to finance the widening of the Panama Canal.

At this time of economic downturn, the European Investment Bank is pressing ahead with its financing operations in Latin America to ensure that viable eligible projects are not jeopardized, the bank said.

The three hydro plants are among the 31 that the government of Panamá said it would build by 2013.

The province of Chiriquí where the projects are located probably is best known to expats in Costa Rica as the location of the city of David.

Drug suspects sought in Atenas turn up dripping wet

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The men suspected of trying to haul 455 kilos of cocaine to the Central Valley did not do well in the woods.

These are the men suspected of ditching their sports utility vehicle in El Alto del Monte in Atenas about 6 a.m. Monday. The men in the vehicle fled into the mountains when they saw police coming.

After dark two men with Colombian nationality showed up at a local bar dripping wet and bruised. That was in Barrio del Jesús de Atenas. One of the men, a 28 year old gave a
name that was identical to the paperwork found in the
abandoned vehicle. They were detained, the Judicial Investigating Organization said. The men were identified by the Fuerza Pública by their last names of Obando Ramírez and Marín Riascos.

More than 40 policemen participated in the search for the men, the agency said.

Meanwhile, the Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas revealed that it had turned up what a spokesman said was 208 kilos of cocaine on a boat in Playa Matapalo near Quepos Monday. The boat is the "Andrés Julián I," and officials said they think it was related to the case of the cocaine confiscated in Atenas.

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Florida puts big solar plant
into generating operation

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

President Barack Obama traveled to Florida Tuesday to help unveil the nation's largest solar power plant. Advocates of renewable energy hope the new plant will spur further development in the field.

Florida energy officials led President Obama through the maze of more than 90,000 solar panels that make up the new energy plant in central Florida. The facility in Arcadia is expected to help power 3,000 homes, at its peak, and do so without producing carbon emissions, like traditional coal-fired plants.

President Obama said he welcomes the drive to open renewable energy facilities. "For the very first time, a large-scale solar power plant, the largest of its kind in the entire nation, will deliver electricity produced by the sun to the citizens of the Sunshine State. And I think it's about time," he said.

In spite of its nickname as the "sunshine state," Florida has lagged behind other states in solar energy production until now. State utility Florida Power and Light says its Arcadia plant will produce 25 megawatts of energy, making it the largest in the nation at least for now. The utility has two other solar plants nearing completion in Florida, including one that will make three times more energy than the Arcadia site.

Experts say the $150 million plant is expensive compared to other technologies, and produces only a fraction of the state's energy needs.

But Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida, says costs are falling quickly. "The cost of solar has been dropping on average about 30 percent a year, where the cost of traditional energies has been going up exponentially because the price of fossil fuels is going up," he said.

Fenton says within three years the cost of large solar plants should be the same as for coal or oil power plants.

Energy leaders in California and Nevada also recognize the opportunity of solar power and are planning to build new plants in coming months. Even China's government has commissioned a U.S. firm to build a massive facility that would produce 80 times more solar energy than the new Florida plant.

Steve Smith directs the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which advocates for renewable energy uses in Florida and nearby states. He says interest in solar power is growing. "I actually believe we are at the beginning of a surge in activity in investing in renewable energy. The big question is which states and which countries are going to get the manufacturing jobs for producing solar panels," he said.

Japan, Germany and China are key producers of the photovoltaic panels used to capture sunlight and pass it onto the electrical grid. Smith says U.S. officials should move quickly to create incentives for U.S. panel makers to open new factories in Florida and other states. "With the high unemployment levels you want more job investment to come into the state," he said.

Smith says growth in the solar energy industry could be a boon for the environment and the economy at the same time.
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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 213

Latin American news
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French court convicts
Scientology of fraud

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The French chapter of the Church of Scientology has been convicted of fraud and fined nearly $1 million. Its top members have also been handed suspended prison sentences. The verdict by a French court stops short of dissolving the church, as the prosecution requested.

A Paris area court fined the Church of Scientology and its library nearly $900,000 on grounds it manipulated its members financially during the 1990s. The court also delivered suspended prison sentences ranging from 10 months to two years to four of its leaders for fraud. Two others were ordered to pay fines.

Investigators had accused the group of pressuring members into paying large sums of money for questionable financial gain and harassing potential members.

Despite the guilty verdict the court stopped short of following the prosecution's demands the church be dissolved in France.

A senior official with the Church of Scientology, Eric Roux, says the church will appeal the verdict, citing intense media and political pressure during the trial. But he praised part of the court's decision.

"The court said that in France, Scientology should continue," Roux said. "And on that point they are very right. This is the fair part of the verdict. That would end any odd idea that the church should end in France. Scientology is recognized everywhere in the world and France must step up to international standards. That is good for the church."

The court's decision not to dissolve the church was in some ways a foregone conclusion, because of new legislation that bars French courts of dissolving groups on the basis of fraud. But anti-sect organizations also claimed victory, even if the verdict did not go as far as they had hoped.

In a separate ruling earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights judged a Russian ban against church operations there was illegal. 

The Church of Scientology was founded by science ficiton writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1954 in the United States, where it is officially recognized as a religion. It claims a worldwide membership of about 12 million people, including 45,000 in France.

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