IN A normal year, Ben White and his partner Tanja at the popular ‘Fork and Waffle’ café in Cowes would take $40,000 over the Easter break.

This year it’s likely to be $1000.

That’s the hard reality of life in the hospitality sector in Bass Coast during the coronavirus pandemic and why nothing short of rate relief is what’s needed from the Bass Coast Shire Council this Wednesday.

“Tanja contacted them during the week and told them to forget the business updates, training advice and webinars; what we need is rate relief,” said Ben over the weekend.

“They said they weren’t considering it at the moment. It might come later.

“But we can’t wait. Everything the government is proposing is weeks away.

“We’ve got an apprentice we’re trying to keep on and there’s only so much you can do with takeaways.”

But where does it end?

According to feedback on the Sentinel-Times’ Facebook page over the Easter weekend, almost everyone deserves rate relief.

It’s not limited to the pubs and cafes they say.

“Pubs, clubs and cafes aren’t the only businesses that have been hit hard. A lot of our small businesses have; beauty salons, travel, hairdressers, gift shops. It’s across the board.”

Another said the owners of “mum and dad sized accommodation businesses” that are paying commercial rates (as distinct from residential rates) which are currently closed are just as deserving, perhaps more so.

“If there is a rates’ reduction, they should also receive it… if they are even able to survive and reopen that is.”

But it doesn’t stop there.

“I’ll probably get shouted down for this but what about rate relief for all the people who are not allowed or welcome to stay in their own holiday homes for which they pay rates? Just asking.”

And the ultimate question, if you grant rate relief, what then?

“It’s all good and well saying don’t pay rates but the money has to come from somewhere, the shire is still providing a service. This would only create more unemployment.”

It’s fair comment but doesn’t detract from the pain being felt by hospitality businesses, the region’s key private sector employers and income generators.

As a community service and to keep things going, Ben and Tanja at Fork and Waffle are offering hearty $10 meals for the cash-strapped and they’re putting on free meals for those who’ve lost their jobs in hospitality.

“You’ve got households where someone is a chef and more than likely, their partner has a job in hospitality too. So, they’ve lost both incomes in one hit.”

Just two doors down in Thompson Avenue, Greg Price of Alex Scott and Staff manages a large number of commercial tenancies and he’s seeing the pain firsthand.

“They’ve already been given the lead in this by the Alpine Shire, which has a very similar tourism profile to us, and others like the City of Warrnambool where they’re offering rate relief and rate deferral,” Mr Price said.

“Council must provide the opportunity for commercial tenants to apply for financial hardship. The Prime Minister is telling landlords and tenants to negotiate outcomes and the shire simply must come to the party in this.

“The council must provide business owners and tenants, who have been closed down since Stage Two restrictions, the opportunity to reduce their rates while this is going on and also to give them the chance to get back on their feet if that’s even possible.

“They’re still having to pay their rent and outgoings, and many will simply go to the wall without help. The council needs to get serious about this,” Mr Price said.

He’s called the council’s package pathetic and is echoing the calls of others wanting fundamental reform and cost saving.

Council to vote on ‘relief’ package

The issue is of a shire ‘Business and Community Response and Recovery’ package is the main item on the agenda at this Wednesday’s Bass Coast Council meeting, April 15 at 5pm, in the council chambers in Wonthaggi.

The public is allowed to attend but have not been encouraged to do so due to the COVID-19 restrictions. The council will also vote on belatedly introducing livestreaming at the same meeting.

At this stage, the shire’s proposed ‘response and recovery’ package does not include rate relief for the hardest hit sector; the pubs, restaurants and cafes, which are the lifeblood of the shire’s $252.8 million tourism sector.

Usually it provides $61.6 million in wages annually, third biggest sector, and directly 1409 of the shire’s 10,839 jobs.

The proposed response package includes a raft of measures to support small business operators including the waiving of a number of permit fees for 2019/20 and lease payment relief for businesses operating from Council premises.

The report to council also proposes the establishment of a $700,000 Business and Community Resilience Grants Program (the Grants Program).

The Grants Program will be overseen by the Bass Coast Community Leadership Recovery Group comprising of Bass Coast community leaders.

The administrative function of the Grants Program will be overseen by Council.

The report also seeks Council approval to discontinue or defer projects from the 2019/20 budget and to re-allocate the savings to fund the Grants Program.

These include the discontinuance or deferral of the following projects from the 2019/20 budget:

* Rating Strategy review

* Car Ferry

* Bass Coast Entry Signage

* Road Management Plan actions

* Street Lighting audit

* Cancellation of Council held events

* Newhaven Skate Park

* Southern Gippsland Food Cluster

* Fleet purchases

The total value of these deferrals is $725,000, to which the shire will add an expected $100,000 in operational savings.

To complement the bureaucratic support already provided to small business, officers have proposed a range of measures Council can implement to further support local businesses. Some of these measures might include:

* Reimbursement of six months of the 2019/20 Street Trading Permit fees

* Financial relief for caravan park and business operators in Council owned facilities

* Waiving business signage and liquor licensing permit fees for the remainder of 2019/20, and

* A new Financial Hardship Policy that was endorsed at Council’s March 2020 Ordinary Council Meeting.

These measures would have a revenue impact of $265,000.

But local businesses have already said the proposed measures don’t go far enough.

Phillip Island council representative Stephen Fullarton is sympathetic but isn’t prepared to call for rate relief at this stage.

“I’m not the economist on council and we’ve got to be mindful that it costs money to run council’s services,” Cr Fullarton said this week.

“But I wouldn’t say it’s off the table.

“I’m not sure how those other municipalities are doing it and we could look at that but for the moment we’re doing what we can supporting business and cutting the costs associated with things like health inspections and levies on outdoor eating and trading.

“But I’m in touch with a lot of people in business on a daily basis and not just those on the main street. Tourism is 80% to 90% of the economy on the Island and everyone is being affected by this.

“Unfortunately, there’ll be dozens of businesses that don’t come back from this.”

Cr Fullarton said the Council had heard the calls for staff cutbacks at the shire but presently all were being deployed to areas of need.

“I think our CEO has done an excellent job with this and she’s on top of what each and every staff member is doing through this.”

Council will consider the matter at Item H1 on the meeting agenda, available on the shire’s website.