Lismore's rate rise debate
EVEN before the sixth Rural Community Consultation on Thursday night, held to discuss Lismore’s proposed 3.51 per cent additional rate raise, one councillor remarked it would be a brave council that passed the hike.
Other councillors speaking on the condition of anonymity said the groundswell of opposition to the special rate rise meant council must decide not to go-ahead with the proposal when it meets on April 20 if it takes the extensive community consultation seriously.
Others said while they remained technically undecided, only the ‘overwhelming’ support at the series of consultative debates planned later this month would see them vote in favour of the plan.
“If the overwhelming number of people continue to say no then I will have to vote against it. I am here to represent the community and this is what the community seems to be saying,” councillor and local businessman Gianpiero Battista said.
Half-way through the most extensive community consultation anyone can remember – which has cost $55,000, including a personalised mail out and a web discussion – mayor Jenny Dowell said yesterday she was pleased by the level of community engagement.
“It’s been draining for councillors and staff because of the many nights out (at meetings) after a long day, and for some of the newer councillors in particular it’s been hard to listen to the depth of feeling against the council,” which Cr Dowell said often related to decisions made by previous councils.
“But as the current elected council we are here to listen.”
Lismore City Council voted in December to seek community feedback to raise rates above the recently announced automatic 2.6pc increase, slightly under the rate of inflation.
The Special Rate Variation (SRV), which ultimately must be approved by the NSW minister of local government, will add an additional $800,000 to the council’s $107 million annual budget, with $500,000 going to roads, $200,000 to the environment and $100,000 for business promotions.
Lismore council finances make stark reading. After councillors this year went through the budget line by line finding savings of about $500,000, roads are still under funded by the tune of $80 million and sewerage by $95 million.
If the SRV is passed it will become part of the effective new rate on which future cap movements are based.
In a show of hands from all the six meetings held so far, 138 opposed the hike, 11 were in favour and 20 undecided.
Complicating the ‘sell’ recent land valuations by the auditor general’s office, on which rates are based, have seen some household’s rates soaring an astonishing 41pc, while other’s have fallen.
Four strands of opposition were repeatedly voiced at the meetings and the website: accusations of council road maintenance incompetence, ability to pay, confusion over substantial variations in estimated rates and a reluctance to spend on the environment.
At the meetings and on the website council has been accused of poorly repairing roads, including blocking drainage ditches, meaning roads quickly fall back into disrepair.
The council’s executive director of infrastructure Garry Hemsworth conceded that the quality of maintenance was often sub-standard but this was due to the lack of funds.
One speaker at the Wyrallah meeting on Thursday night was roundly applauded when he said already high rates were driving away potential homebuyers from the area and even making current residents think about moving.
Council Watch member Janine Wilson asked why Lismore, which already charged one of the highest rates in the state, would raise them again when the medium household income in the area was 27pc below the state average.
According to a 2008 State Government report (the latest available), Lismore City Council charged the third highest rates among 33 comparable councils. The same report also revealed nearly twice as many Lismore residents were having difficulty paying their rates as those in comparable councils.
The issue was highlighted at Thursday’s meeting when a farmer said his proposed rate rise to $1500 was the equivalent of 10pc of his earnings.
The message hasn’t been lost on some councillors.
“The process has been a good opportunity to listen to people and really understand how they are hurting,” councillor Neil Marks said after attending this week’s forums.
Reflecting the national debate, some have asked why they should pay to boost the environment budget from $10,000, down from $15,000 four years ago.
Greens councillor Vanessa Ekins said she could understand why some farmers might fear that environmental protections might impact on their farming but said it did not have to.
“This area is one of most biodiverse areas anywhere in Australia but we now have less than 1 per cent of the Big Scrub left. It’s crucial that we start protecting it,” she said.
“It doesn’t have to impact on farming but we need to go ahead with more knowledge and the funding would allow us to do a fauna and flora study.”
A third councillor who agreed to background The Northern Star on their thinking, said while tending to vote against the SRV, a final decision rested on the series of two four-and-a-half hour deliberative forums.
This is where 60 people – 20 randomly chosen, 20 representatives from community organisation and 20 volunteers – will come together and give the pro and anti case.
If the council agrees, and at the moment it may come down to one or two votes, the proposal will go to the minister. To participate in the debate go to www.haveyoursaylismore.gov.au