By Kirra Grimes

LOCAL landholders continue to voice strong objections to the abolishment of the Rural Residential rates category, a proposal under the South Gippsland Shire Council’s soon to be adopted 2019-2022 Rating Strategy.
Owners of properties currently zoned Rural Residential, and set to be hit with yearly rates increases of up to $2500 under the new strategy, made presentations to the Council’s administrators and Acting CEO last Wednesday, describing the change as “unfair,” “inequitable” and “totally wrong”.
First up were Frank and Claire Oostermeyer, the owners of an 18.3-hectare property at Dollar, who’ve calculated that under the proposal to recategorise this property as Residential, their rates would increase by 43 per cent, or around $1000 a year.
The Oostermeyers said they had no issue with the removal of Rural Residential category, but argued that if this were to happen, their property should be recategorised as a farm, and continue to attract a 70 per cent differential rate.
Frank said the property, used to graze cattle, was a farming property, located in a farming zone, and that the dwelling on the property was “secondary to the agricultural use of the land” and was “used to manage the farm business” and so is a farm dwelling.
He questioned why vacant farm land (no dwelling) would receive the 70 per cent differential rate “and yet with a dwelling to manage the farm it suddenly gets the residential rate and only because the land size is under 20 Ha and is used for grazing operations”.
“How does Council justify grazing on land under 20 Ha as no longer farming?” he asked. “Grazing is a bona fide farming engagement.”
He also said communication from council on the matter had come “too late” giving them little time to investigate their options and causing “extreme anxiety”.
He said the administrators should wait for the completion of the Local Government Minister’s state-wide rating system review before making any decisions in this area.
“We have no issue with the removal of the term Rural Residential… but to rate our farming property as Residential with all that this category implies is unfair and totally inequitable to any small acreage farmer who farms land in a farming zone, which is treated as a business and stands the test set under the Valuation of Land Act 1960,” he said.
“If these high rates continue, small acreage grazing properties will become worthless due to significant rate burden.”
Peter and Leigh-Ann Roden expressed similar concerns, saying the recategorisation of their 19.08 ha Mirboo North property and subsequent rates increase would force them to pack up and move.
“The change to the general rate is an easy way out and is money raising. It is a totally incorrect assessment of my property,” Peter said, citing the presence of livestock, farming infrastructure, and thousands of dollars invested into a farming activities such as grazing cattle and cutting hay as evidence that the property should be categorised as a farm.
Pleading for “common sense to prevail,” Peter said he and his wife had “found heaven” when they’d moved to Mirboo North, but that the rating strategy proposal threatened to take that away.
He said rejecting the proposal, submitted by “a sacked council” would be “a good starting point” in the administrators’ stated quest to restore good governance.
“I don’t want to fight people; I just want to graze my cows and have a nice life.
“But I’m worried I’ll lose my cows and the reason I moved to Mirboo North,” he said.
With the decision on the rating strategy delayed until this Wednesday, July 31, it’s yet to be seen whether the objections of the Oostermeyers, Rodens and other affected landholders will sway the decisions of newly appointed administrators Julie Eisenbise, Christian Zahra and Rick Brown.
None of them would give anything away following last Wednesday’s ordinary council meeting.
“We understand it materially impacts people, and that’s why we’ve been given extra time to be briefed, to ask questions, to make good decisions on behalf of the local community.
“I wouldn’t say I’ll be looking at any one [part of the rating strategy] over any other,” Zahra told the Sentinel-Times.
Brown said all rural shires faced a “big challenge” in increasing their revenue bases, and just a few hours into the job at South Gippsland, he didn’t have the “vaguest idea” what the best solution might be for this area.
“It comes down to the issue of revenue sources – where are you going to get the money?
“If there’s demand for services, facilities, infrastructure, that’s fine if you’re generating a large surplus, but if you’re not – what do you do? The short answer is I haven’t got a clue. And I’ve got seven days to become an expert,” he said.
Ms Eisenbise wouldn’t comment except to say, “we don’t want to rush anything when everybody’s just arrived.”