ARE OUR COUNCIL RATES GOING UP… AGAIN?

It seems ratepayers will receive a double whammy in the next financial year when rates go up. Again.

And not only by that 5% Special Rate Variation (SRV) which was introduced to pay the interest on loans which Council was supposed to be taking out as part of its 50% contribution to the stalling $100 million Roads Program. But it seems as a consequence of (yet another) legacy issue from the amalgamation which is described very inventively, as “Rate Harmonisation”.

This unpleasant news may not come as a surprise to some people who weathered the distance to near the end of the marathon meeting of MidCoast Council on 16 December last year. Conveniently placed at Agenda Item number “33” and with the rather obscure and confusing title of “Rates Harmonisation Project – Draft Rates Structure for 2021-22”  was a Council Report recommending the equalisation and consolidation of the three former Councils’ rate structures into one single structure.

Winners and Losers?

This means in effect that in some areas Council rates will now be going up as a result of this “Harmonisation” and in some places they may be going down. But we don’t really know as Council hasn’t bothered to tell us yet!

MidCoast Councillors passed the Resolution 413/20 by 7 votes to 3:

That Council: 

1. Adopt the categories and sub-categories outlined in the Table ‘Proposed Categories & Sub-Categories’ contained within the report. 

2. Adoptthe draft rate structure contained within Annexure A as the basis for a community information program to be undertaken in early 2021. 

Working through the smokescreen of official waffle aimed at playing down the consequences, it appears some Councillors have pre-determined what the new rates structure will be, without any reference to, nor public exhibition of, those rates, with no community input, nor prior public consultation.

Councillors who voted for this Resolution were:

Cr David West, Cr Len Roberts, Cr Claire Pontin, Cr Troy Fowler, Cr Brad Christensen, Cr Jan McWilliams Cr Karen Hutchinson.

Those against were Cr Peter Epov, Cr Kathryn Bell and Katheryn Smith.

Cr Peter Epov did move an amendment, appealing for the new rates structure to be placed on public exhibition (for public consultation) before a final determination was made by Council, but this was defeated by the same group.

(Cr David Keegan was not at that Council Meeting, making it the 9th meeting that he missed, out of the 18 held in 2020.)

Since that Resolution was adopted very little has been published by Council on the subject. 

The second part of the Resolution indicated that“a community information program to be undertaken in early 2021”.  Since that December meeting nothing of any substance has been revealed by Council to the broader community. 

Council’s Website

For those keen enough, or able, to check Council’s home page there are links and references to fifteen subjects ranging from Bushfire Recovery and Covid 19 Information to Pets and Animals all boldly displayed but there is no reference pointing to this significant issue of “Rate Harmonisation”  nor to the new rate structure, something that will affect every single ratepayer in the Council Area.

At that December meeting Council also promised that a “Rates Calculator” would be placed on Council’s website, but at the time of going to publication there has been no sign of this tool.

Rates Shock

To many this “Rate Harmonisation” will come as a significant surprise or shock, and a further financial burden, particularly when not only the primary rate goes up but also when that  5% Special Rate Variation kicks in and is applied on top of our rates.

To be fair, the subject of “Rate Harmonisation” (rate equalisation) has been mandated by the NSW Government since the Proclamation which created the new amalgamated Council. The original requirement by the NSW Government was that all newly merged councils were required to establish a new, equitable rating structure, and transition to it from 1 July 2020. 

This challenging and problematic issue has been known by MidCoast Council since the first day of merger, but unlike other councils very little has been done to prepare the MidCoast community.

Extended Deadline

The deadline for “Rate Harmonisation” was subsequently extended by the NSW Government to 1 July 2021, but our Council has not commenced a conversation with the Community and appears determined to just steam roll through and impose the new rate structure at the 11th hour, without formal public exhibition and consultation.

Other Amalgamated Councils

The majority of other newly created Councils dealt with the issue last year, and have thoroughly and comprehensively engaged with their communities, placing the proposed rates structures on public exhibition for comment, before a final determination.

Yet again, the management of the issue by MidCoast Council shows an arrogance that will leave many ratepayers angry and concerned. It’s bad enough to have to pay more, but for what?

Most of the other 16 newly amalgamated Councils approached the challenge of “Rate Harmonisation” by informing their communities of the issue well in advance, explaining how they were proposing to treat the issue and how they arrived at the proposed rate structures, which were then placed on public exhibition for community consultation and public input.

Rates Harmonisation Reference Panels.

A number of Councils actually advertised for expressions of interest from members of their communities to participate in “Rates Harmonisation Reference Panels” to help determine draft rates for public consideration.

Clearly the overwhelming majority of the other 16 Councils saw this as an opportunity, as it affected all ratepayers, to be proactive, giving people early notice of the requirement and to be inclusive and transparent. The methodology was structured around being inclusive and focused on delivering services to their community along with a lot of other important issues and subjects by openly engaging with their communities. There were no attempts at covering up information or reducing disclosure to the barest minimum.

If you search hard enough you’ll find a comprehensive 30 page briefing paper produced for Council dating back to May 2019, by one of MidCoast Council’s favoured Consultants, Morrison Low.

This details in Table 4 (page 21) an itemised schedule of suggested actions which include:

Council Workshop – Rates Structure Scenarios – June 2019

Prepare Community Engagement Strategy – August 2019

Commence Community Engagement Activities – Rates Harmonisation – September 2019

Rates Modelling – New land valuations – re-model rate structure and prepare ratepayer impact analysis – November 2019

Rates and Revenue Policy decision – December 2019

Written notice of rates categories / subcategories to ratepayers – February 2020

Council Workshop – Harmonised Revenue Policy – March 2020

Council Workshop – Long Term Financial Plan – March 2020

Harmonised Revenue Policy endorsed for public exhibition – March 2020 

Adopt Harmonised Revenue Policy and Rates Structure – June 2020

Post rates notices July 2020.

Regrettably Council did not follow the Consultants’ advice on engagement and consultation.

The Briefing Note was presented to Council back in May 2019 for implementation before 1 July 2020, so the same schedule could have been easily adopted when the deadline was extended by the NSW Government by an additional year.

It is also very concerning that after commissioning that Consultant’s Briefing Note, at some cost, very little if any, of the recommended actions, particularly in relation to public engagement as itemised in that schedule of timetabled actions, have been undertaken. 

No doubt Council will be using Covid 19 as their excuse, or telling us that the rates will be confirmed in June this year along with the next Budget so people can still have some input.

Surely the community’s best opportunity to have their say on the new proposed rate structure is before Council has adopted that rate structure, and not when it has been interlaced with a Budget a Delivery and Operational plan and a whole bunch of other considerations six months later.

Long Term Financial Plan

The Consultant’s Briefing Note also makes significant references to Financial Sustainability and the need for an accurate and up-to-date Long Term Financial Plan, a subject Councillor Peter Epov has been advocating for several years.

The May 2019 Briefing Note stated:

“Council is currently refining its consolidated long term financial planning and asset management planning.”

So here we are in March 2021, nearly two years after that Briefing Note, and after a number of promises from Council to produce a Long Term Financial Plan and yet that plan is still not in place, but they have determined what our rates will be.

Why is it so difficult for our Council with its $280 Million Budget to produce a Long Term Financial Plan? After all, it is only and essentially a cash flow projection extended over 10 years, So what would it expose?

More Consultants

Apparently Council is working on a Long Term Financial Plan and has again engaged some ‘consultants’ to help them. 

So will the plan commence from the 2017/18 Year when the new Council was elected or the 2018/19 when Council published its first Budget (including a Long term Financial Plan). Or will it commence from the 2021/22 Year when possibly all manner of prior sins can be omitted and erased?

Other questions include the growing shadow over the much lauded $100 Million Roads Program, where Council received a NSW Government Grant of $50 Million Dollars over four years to be matched by Council through a $50 million loan, to be borrowed over that same four year period for a list of specified roadworks.

From Council records it is clear that they have not been borrowing the required amounts for that Roads Program and given the number of projects that have not been completed and the constant “re-voting” of projects (council speak for failing to complete projects in the specified financial year and transferring them into the next year) over the past two years it seems unlikely that all the proposed roadworks within that four year $100 Million Program will be completed on time.

Perhaps there have been too many distractions for the Administration, like the Office Centralisation – a very expensive computer system that apparently still doesn’t work effectively, the Executive Restructure by our rookie GM where five divisions were shrunk into three, or the inconceivable turnover in Council Staff. 

Bring on the Local Government Election on 4 September! We can do better!

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