By Gav Ross

Web_G223013BASS Coast’s battling business sector has been slugged with a major council permit fee increase, with one trader accusing the shire of using ‘standover tactics’ to deliver the bill. Last week, Bass Coast Shire Council delivered renewal notices to traders who use public footpath space for trading activities – which includes goods stands outside shops, signs and outdoor dining facilities. Scott Chambers, manager of the iconic Wonthaggi ‘Whalebone’ Hotel, said he would be forced to remove the three sets of tables and chairs set up outside the pub for patrons because the cost of his permit has risen by more than 40 per cent ($500).

He said his last year’s footpath trading permit fee was around $1200, but now the hotel has been asked to fork out over $1700. “It’s absolutely ludicrous for the council to say they’re trying to help businesses and then they do this,” he said. “For me to pay $1700 just to have those tables and chairs out, I’d have to sell $4000 worth of pots of beer just to break even.” While he was livid over the fee increase alone, Scott was also less than impressed with the shire’s delivery method, which he described as akin to a “standover tactic”. “The notice was hand-delivered by a ranger and another council officer, in front of my customers,” Scott said. “It’s like they were saying ‘you better pay this one’. “They didn’t even bother to put the letter in an envelope. “It was just really wrong.” Scott said he was also shocked to see the increased bill’s due date for payment being marked as July 31 – less than two weeks from when it was handed over. “That’s a hell of a lot to come up with in short notice,” Scott said. “At this stage, we won’t be paying it and we’ll be taking our tables and chairs off the street. “Having spent so much money on refurbishments recently, we don’t need this. “We need help getting people back into town. “Let’s face it, businesses are closing left, right and centre – and this doesn’t help.”

Across the road from the hotel in McBride Avenue, Ramalama Book Shop owner, David Norton, said the shire is doing nothing to help new or established businesses. He said he pays $200 annually to set up the small bookstands pressed against the front walls of the premises he leases, and this year he’s been asked to pay double, along with an extra $200 to display a modest A-frame sign. “We put things out on the stands like $1 books and tapes and it’s something that helps draw people into the shop,” David said. “If established businesses are struggling to pay new charges like this, what hope does a proprietor wanting to start a new business in town have?” Wonthaggi Business Association (WBA) members held an urgent meeting outside the Wonthaggi Hotel last Friday afternoon, updating traders on the situation and their options. WBA president, Malcolm Beasley, slammed the fee increase, saying the timing “couldn’t be more inappropriate”. “We’re in the middle of a slow period and a downturn some retailers have never experienced before,” Mr Beasley said. “We all know things are slow, and to put that impost on traders shows that the council hasn’t really considered the timing of its announcements.” Mr Beasley said he also held concerns over the way the renewal notices were delivered. “I have a real problem with (WBA) members feeling intimidated,” he said.

Town Hall meeting today
The council’s community safety manager, Philippa O’Halloran, said rangers deliver renewal notices with a council staff member each year and the same delivery method was used across the shire. “We always go two-up where there may be contentious issues, and this way there are two people who can respond to questions,” Ms O’Hallaran said. As for the fee increase, she said a review of all community safety fees had been undertaken last July/August. “The cost of providing service has increased over the past five years; however, the majority of fees and charges had not been reviewed during this time,” Ms O’Hallaran said. “The review was undertaken with the aim of moving toward an equitable user pays system with fees based on the complexity of the permit or service. “The process undertaken included benchmarking against other councils, cost of service analysis and implementation process. “A preliminary report went to a council policy workshop on September 12, 2012 advising them of the review and the reasons it was being undertaken and it was adopted by council at the September 19 meeting.”

While she confirmed that payments from traders were due next week, she said the council was open to providing an extension upon request. Mr Beasley commended the shire for its quick turn-around time in organising a meeting at Wonthaggi Town Hall today (Tuesday, July 23) at 5.30pm. He said traders are welcome to attend the meeting to discuss the issue with council officers further. “One of the things the WBA has managed to do is have a good working relationship with the council and they arranged this meeting in a very short period of time,” he noted. “It only took them two business days to organise it, and that’s a really positive thing.”