In a shire of just under 19,000 ratepayers it seems astonishing that only 33 turned up to four well-publicised public meetings held by Bega Valley Shire Council in Bermagui, Bega, Merimbula and Eden last week.
This is a worry for council who, if they decide to seek a special rates variation at the extraordinary March 7 council meeting, will put forward an application to IPART which must, amongst other criteria, provide evidence that the community is aware of the need for and the extent of the rise, and what the implications are if it doesn’t proceed.
The public meetings are not the only community engagement council has undertaken.
A rates calculator, fact sheets, media releases, a deliberative poll specifically related to the special variation rate (SRV) increase and an online rates survey have all played a part in council’s solid awareness campaign.
But were ratepayers engaged?
Mayor Bill Taylor won’t come out at this point and say they have ticked that box for IPART.
Instead he chooses his words carefully.
“Based on the contact we’ve had with the community through our public consultations and submissions, I think the community has a better understanding of what the long term plan of council is and our perceived need to maintain the community infrastructure into that long term.
“Whether they approve is difficult to say.
“We did anticipate there would be bigger attendances at public meetings.
“The main concern being expressed by individuals across the board is the ability to pay.
“The special rates variation is not of itself a large amount of money per rates assessment but it comes on top of the existing rates and for those people who get the services, water, sewerage and waste charges, that is what is concerning people.
“And we understand that.
“What we have to do is try to balance between maintaining the community’s assets into the future and the community’s ability to pay for that maintenance.
“Based on our projections, we are in danger of losing some of those assets if we don’t look after them better,” Mayor Taylor said on Tuesday.
Councillor Sharon Tapscott was blunt,” she said.
“I went to every single one of them (public meetings). They were really badly attended.
“I was a little bit disappointed because it was an opportunity for people to come and give their opinion on this issue. At every single meeting it got high jacked to another issue. The SRV was never at the forefront of the agenda depending on where you came from.
“Some, like one Eden person, clearly just wanted to tell us how bad a job we were doing,” Mrs Tapscott said.
However she didn’t view it as a waste of time.
“I don’t think community consultation is ever a waste whether it’s with four or 40 or 400 people.
“It’s a shame more people didn’t take advantage of it.”
Mayor Taylor believes that the meetings did manage to build awareness of why council is proposing a special rates variation.
“One more thing that I noticed particularly at the Merimbula meeting was that the more background people became aware of on how council attracts grants, and loan subsidies to fund its maintenance works, then the more appreciative they seem to be of the efforts made by council staff on their behalf,” he said.
“Another thing that really stands out is how enthusiastic the sporting clubs and bodies are about the improvement they have seen which flows from the existing sporting levy, in place now for four years.
“The other sign of approval was from transport operators, such as bus operators, who see the critical need to get our collector roads to a safer and more durable standard,” he said.
Mrs Tapscott is positive about the effort council has put into assisting ratepayers understand the ins and outs of the proposed special rates variation.
“I feel the council has done the best it can do to inform people. It’s certainly given people the opportunity to come up and get the information in an understandable manner. The people who have that information clearly understand.
“Whether they agree that it’s warranted is something I’m not convinced of.”