The recent hearing at VCAT of an appeal against Bass Coast Shire’s ‘Graham Street Special Charge Scheme No 42’ concluded that the council was legally entitled to go ahead and charge 80 people in Wonthaggi for the proposed works under this scheme. However, there is a different court whose voice has been totally ignored by the shire. This is the true court of fairness. It is represented in the voices of the ratepayers who ask why they should be asked to pay for works which they have not requested, do not want and cannot afford.
One of the questions people would like to hear answered is: ‘Who wants this work, why and how much contribution they are making?’ It has become abundantly clear the shire does not truly consult people about what they want, rather they dictate and impose. A new inexperienced group of councillors and an entrenched bureaucracy have led to a situation very different from other shires. Here, ratepayers are being bullied and intimidated rather than being respected and openly consulted. More than half the people billed under this scheme signed a petition objecting to it. VCAT ruled that because the petition was not received before the appointed deadline it was inadmissible.
This does not mean that the council should ignore it. If the council thinks that this project does not have a majority in favour, it should therefore rethink priorities. Some councils, like South Gippsland, have a policy stating that at least 70 per cent of people affected by a Special Charge Scheme must be in favour for it to proceed. Our council is currently looking at rate increases. If small increases were spread across the entire community to cover the council’s projects, less real distress would be caused to those forced currently to pay for special charge schemes. Perhaps council fears voter backlash more than it cares for the community; after all, why irk many when you can get away with real financial damage to a few?
The Graham Street Scheme is unfair, inappropriate and untimely. It may be legal but that doesn’t make it right. The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that the average weekly income for an individual in Wonthaggi is $402. Across Australia it is $577 In Wonthaggi, 50.6 per cent of people work full time. Across Australia, 59.6 per cent of the population are full time employed. Across Australia, 23.7 per cent of households have a gross income of less than $600 per week. In Wonthaggi, that figure is 45.7 per cent – nearly double the national average. In Wonthaggi, 20.1 per cent of families are single-parent families. Across Australia, 15.9 per cent of families have one parent only. The median age of people in Wonthaggi is 48 years, across Australia it is 37.
The Australian Council of Social Services found in 2010 that the Poverty Line for a family with two adults and two children was $752 per week. The median household income in Wonthaggi in 2011 was $675 – that is half of the households in Wonthaggi are $77 per week below the poverty line. In simple terms, we in Wonthaggi are older and poorer; we have more people living in single-parent families and a higher amount of people living below the poverty line. It is patently unfair to burden an already economically struggling community with expensive and unjustifiable programs of work which small groups of individuals are being forced to pay. The Graham Street scheme is based on a desire, according to the council documents, to “improve the Eastern Township entrance”. It states that the community wanted this.
Which part of the community wanted it? Surely not more than half of the town’s households that live below the poverty line, and certainly not the residents who are being forced to pay for it. Approximately one-third of the money being spent on this project is going from our pockets to fill the void in VicRoads funding. The council tells us $750,000 of the total budget for this project is being used to do work which is the responsibility of VicRoads. It is entirely inappropriate to use grant money which could have benefitted many other infrastructure projects across the shire (such as swimming pools, libraries, sports grounds, halls and roads and bridges) to subsidise VicRoads. It is inappropriate to charge householders 30 per cent of the cost of a project when it knows that more than half of the people charged are already in difficult financial circumstances.
In an era of economic uncertainty, spending on beautification programs is untimely. The council could learn from VicRoads that when money is tight, you spend it on necessities, not on non-urgent work. This project further stresses a community already suffering from economic difficulties. No doubt we are in the lucky country but Wonthaggi is a community which requires of its municipal authority; that its spending be more judicious and geared towards community strengthening rather than causing further economic and social disruption. VCAT has determined that the process followed by the council is legal, however, as a community we are saying to the council, find out what the community needs and wants before you spend on cosmetics which while legal are unfair, inappropriate and untimely.
Heather Carroll, Wonthaggi.