Country councils eager for funds
COUNCILS will need a share of the tax revenue relied on by State and Federal governments if they are to continue providing the same levels of service demanded by their ratepayers, Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils president Jenny Dowell has said.
Cr Dowell, who is also the Lismore Mayor, said Lismore council was among the at least 25 per cent of NSW councils that earned less than the cost of the services they were supposed to provide.
Cr Dowell stressed that did not mean the council was ‘going broke’, but it did mean services would ultimately have to be cut unless the council’s income increased.
That was becoming a common cry across the state as councils struggled to maintain services and staffing with a rate base that, in real terms, was shrinking.
NSW Country Mayors Association chairman and Coffs Harbour Mayor Keith Rhoades said rate pegging – limits set by the State Government on the amount by which councils could increase their rates – typically ran lower than the cost of inflation. This year’s limit was set at 2.6 per cent, while the consumer price index was running at between 3 and 3.5pc.
“So you’re behind the eight ball before you even start,” Cr Rhoades said.
“All councils can go back to, to find the dollars to deliver what the community expects, is to cut services – and that’s what local government doesn’t like doing.”
Cr Rhoades said NSW was the only state in Australia to have rate pegging and the policy should be done away with.
“All the other (councils in other states) are accountable to their communities at every election and if they put up rates for no reason their constituents vent their feelings at the ballot box,” he said.
Cr Dowell agreed councils needed more money to fund their programs, particularly as the State and Federal governments ‘cost shifted’ by handing their own programs to local government and as an ageing population base increased the cost burden on councils.
However, she said the absence of rate pegging in other states had not stopped those councils from getting into difficulty.
“Our ability to ask our ratepayers for funds is limited (by rate pegging) but the ability for ratepayers to pay those funds is also limited and we do need a change in the Federal Constitution to give recognition to local government so we can get our fair share of tax dollars,” she said.
That change would have to be done through a referendum – the Federal election after next was the time being talked about at the moment – and would need bipartisan support.
It would also have implications beyond the funding issue, such as protecting councils from amalgamation or dismissal and potentially ‘professionalising’ the role of councillors by giving them full salaries.