Rating changes rejected amid controversy
IN A nutshell, the shire-appointed Rating Strategy Review Committee wants the owners of shops, offices and industrial property to pay a bigger share of the shire rates than they do at present.
It’s also South Gippsland Councillor Don Hill’s earnest intention.
He wants to see the farmers, who represent 16.8 per cent of the assessments, but pay almost 27 per cent of the rates, at a total of $10.2 million, get some relief.
But at a Special Meeting of council last Wednesday, March 21, called to put the 2018-19 draft budget out for public comment, a majority of his colleagues opted to defer consideration of such a change to the rating system until after this year’s rate notices have already gone out.
The decision wasn’t arrived at, however, without plenty of heat and controversy in the debate.
Leading the push for farming properties (down to as little as 2 hectares in size if you can believe it) to be rated at 65 per cent of the general rate, instead of the present 70 per cent, Cr Hill jumped to his feet last Wednesday to move an alternate motion to the one in the council agenda, calling on council to “follow due process” and respect the wishes of the council-appointed Rating Strategy Review Committee and incorporate their proposed rating changes in the budget document for community feedback.
“All up these represent very slight and modest increases in the industrial and commercial group in the order of an average increase of between $75 and $150 a year and that in itself, for a business in town, represents less than a cup of coffee per fortnight,” he said.
Cr Hill went on to say that while the owners of industrial land were paying an average of $1000 in rates, commercial property owners $1400, and home owners $1700; farmers were paying between $3200 and $6000 a year.
He said there was no justification for farmers paying up to six times the rates of someone who owned an industrial property.
He further claimed that South Gippsland had among the lowest commercial and industrial rate differentials in the state.
“Four years ago we put the recommendations of the Rating Strategy Review Committee out virtually unchanged. This year we have been unable to do so, I believe, because of improper actions by this council but that’s a discussion for another time.”
He went on to list spending by the council, including such things as the proposed redevelopment of Bair Street which offered virtually no benefit to the farmers.
No deal, says Cr Kiel
But Cr Maxine Kiel wasn’t having any of it.
She went into bat for small business owners saying it was important council had regard especially for the numbers of people they employed.
“I would like to speak against this motion,” Cr Kiel said.
“I believe the whole process was flawed from the beginning with there not being a fair representation of all the affected groups on the Rating Strategy Review Committee.”
Cr Kiel said the committee was dominated by the farming sector “and a lot of input was from self-interest participants” resulting in an unfair outcome.
She said the majority of the time was spent discussing farming rates and very little on the impact the changes would have on other classes of ratepayers.
Cr Kiel acknowledged that she was a small business owner and was well aware of the enormous burden placed on all areas of business from the cost of staff, Workcover and superannuation to power “and the list goes on”.
She said small business owners employed 40 per cent of the Australian workforce and had other costs that farmers didn’t face.
She said she wasn’t against farmers, agreeing they were “the lifeblood of the community” but argued council needed to “focus attention on the sustainability of the shire’s businesses and their ability to employ”.
All councillors had their say.
Cr Meg Edwards said running a leaner more efficient shire would reduce rates for everyone.
Cr Aaron Brown used comparisons with other Gippsland councils to show that commercial and industrial rates in South Gippsland were the second highest in the region, claiming there was no justification for a shift in the rate burden.
He also claimed there were no reasons advanced for introducing a 5 per cent Municipal Charge.
It was also noted that small business operators paid rates on two premises, their house and their business.
Cr Andrew McEwen backed Cr Hill’s call for change saying that if small business owners couldn’t pay the small rate increase proposed, “they probably shouldn’t be in business”.
However once it became clear that the majority of councillors would vote for deferral, both Cr McEwen and Cr Hill cut up rough, claiming the Local Government Act had been breached by the Mayor Cr Lorraine Brunt allegedly directing the CEO to produce a report for the council meeting that supported deferring the rating changes when she had no authority to do so.
Cr Brunt has since rejected these claims but during the meeting last week, she tried to stop both Cr Hill and Cr McEwen even making the accusations.
The argy-bargy resulted in Cr Hill submitting a Notice of Rescission towards the end of last Wednesday’s scheduled council meeting that was dealt with at an “Urgent” meeting of council at 5pm that day, the explanation being that a later meeting would delay the public consultation process for the budget.
Cr Hill rejected this, when speaking to the ‘Sentinel-Times’ afterwards, saying a week or so to review council’s processes would cause no problems with the budget timeline.
Already absent from the Special Meeting at a conference in Geelong, Cr Alyson Skinner and Cr Jeremy Rich were apologies from the day but Crs McEwen and Hill also stayed away from the Urgent meeting, leaving the bare minimum of five needed for a quorum.
And this was only achieved after Cr Meg Edwards was called back on her way home.
The background to Cr Hill’s rescission motion was as follows:
“There is a possible breach of the Local Government Act with regard to the process followed in the preparation and inclusion of the officer report in the Council Agenda for the March 21st 2018 Council meeting. No accusations are made towards any officers involved in this process. Councillors should be fully aware of the legality of events and to consider whether they have by their vote, effectively condoned a breach of the Local Government Act. This rescission motion allows time for Councillors to be fully briefed on events and to make a final determination on the matter of the proposed rate strategy after considering the legality and process that was conducted. Any councillor who considers that they made a mistake in the vote on 21 March 2018 is therefore able to amend their decision in the light of the facts.”
The urgent meeting was held and Cr Hill’s motion was lost, unanimously in fact with Crs Hill, McEwen, Rich and Skinner all absent.
Cr McEwen told the ‘Sentinel’ that he had another appointment which he could change at short notice.