Bega Valley Shire Council deputy mayor Russell Fitzpatrick says he voted against council’s special rates variation at last week’s extraordinary meeting because council has yet to get its house in order.
“I don’t think we’ve got our house in order yet with the general rates package,” Clr Fitzpatrick told the Magnet on Monday.
“Especially with water and sewerage, and I don’t think we have a right to ask for it (the special rates variation) until we have that done.
The process hasn’t been done satisfactorily,” he said.
Clr Fitzpatrick was one of four councillors who voted against last Thursday’s motion to seek a special rates variation from Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART). Joining him were councillors Sharon Tapscott, Kristy McBain and Keith Hughes.
Overall the vote was passed 5-4 in favour of applying for three, on-off rate variations above the 3.4 per cent peg determined by IPART, one per year for the next three years.
The council will now request a new two per cent SV in 2013/14 in order to service collector roads, retain an expiring 2.4 per cent increase in 2014/15 for possible debt servicing or recreation assert renewals, and a new two per cent increase in 2015/16 for public infrastructure renewal.
Clr Fitzpatrick reinforced that his concerns were more with what he views as unnecessary water and sewerage charges, rather than the special rate variation.
“I can’t see how we can ask for a rates rise and set it in for 10 years when we haven’t worked out what our sewerage and water charges are going to be.
“We’re only now assessing our level of water and sewerage charges.”
A workshop on the sewerage and water charges was held the day before the extraordinary council meeting on the Thursday.
While what happens in council workshops is confidential, Clr Fitzpatrick said he was ‘gutted’ by what was revealed in the workshop, a mere day before the special rates variation vote was taken.
“I was pretty gutted because it was what I believed all along. That they’re (Section 64 water and sewerage charges) being charged far too big and that they can be reduced substantially for the rate payers,” he said.
“I wanted to support the SV. But we’ve had 19 special levies since 2005. The only way we seem to be able to raise money is going for a special levy,” he said.
“I fully support the purposes that (this proposed SV) is for but it’s a matter of us getting our house in order first.”
Clr Tapscott was also concerned about sewerage charges and stated that that was a major concern for her in voting against the SV.
“Russell Fitzpatrick has been asking for ever for a workshop on water and sewerage rates because we wanted to see if there was a better way of doing it and it appears that there might be a better way of doing that,” she said.
“The workshop held the day before the vote showed there are other options. We were so cranky that we finally got this information after months and months of asking for it. Four of us decided we wanted to explore the options before pressing on with these special variations,” she explained.
“Our rates are quite well benchmarked against the rest of the rates in the state but it’s not the rates that are the problem. It’s the fees and charges that upset people,” she said.
“Water is just OK but sewerage is out of the ballpark and that gets CPI on it. By the time you get CPI and a special variation on your rates, then you get water usage on your rates…it’s the compounding effect on all of this,” she said.
“I support the special variation - we need the money for the collector roads but the overall impost is just too much to bare,” she said.
In voting against the SV, Clr Kristy McBain was also concerned about ability to pay.
“I just think there is a capacity to pay issue in our shire considering the low socio economic base with a poorer average income compared to the rest of the state,” she said.
“We need to stand back for a year and think about what else we can do, look at fees and charges in general.
“We need to see what else council can do to cut its own costs to raise the money and look at how the average ratepayer can deal with any increases to rates.
“There has to be a further review of the financial plan.
“We need to sit down with those departments to see if and where it is possible to cut costs.
“We’re going to have to make those hard decisions.
“We may in due course have to cut services so that we don’t have to burden the rate payer,” Clr McBain said.
Clr Keith Hughes had a different perspective on the high rates impost.
“Because the State Government exempts publicly owned forests from rates, all other ratepayers subsidise the woodchip industry and rates are higher than they should be with or without the application for a special variation,” he said.
“Too many residents are doing it tough and Council should provide a more realistic hardship policy for people who can’t afford to keep up their rate payments.
“There is a better way than rescheduling repayments and sending in, at extra expense, debt collectors when people fall behind or miss repayments. Particularly the elderly, who have property assets but little income, should be allowed to have rates accumulate as a charge on their titles to be paid - plus a suitable rate of interest - when they die or their properties are sold,” he said.
IPART is expected to announce its decision about whether council can apply the SV in late May/early June in time for the rates increase to apply to the first rates notice in July.