Could legal hitch stop Lismore council’s sale of properties?
TOUGH new rules brought in during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect struggling ratepayers will not stop Lismore City Council from selling a number of properties for unpaid rates and charges.
The council announced last month that it planned to sell 15 properties in default of payment of rates, which it claims totals $362,568.80.
General manager Shelley Oldham said the council "took all reasonable steps, under its Debt Recovery Policy, in an attempt to recover the debt".
"This process includes reminder letters, demand letters and legal action," she said.
"In some cases, we organised support conferences with ratepayers and undertook on-site assistance."
Ms Oldham said the recovery of the unpaid rates for the 15 properties was "well in train" before COVID-19 hit.
The COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures-Miscellaneous) Act 2020 No 2 came into effect in May and continues until September 26.
It explains that a local council "will not commence proceedings for the recovery of rates or charges against a person without first considering specific matters that relate to that person's individual circumstances".
These circumstances are:
● Whether the payment of the rate or charge could be made in instalments or by way of some other financial arrangement
● Whether the person should be referred to a financial counsellor
● Whether mediation or alternative dispute resolution should be attempted first, and
● Whether interest on the unpaid amount should be deferred or waived.
"Once council has considered these steps, they are entitled to commence proceedings provided they comply with the Local Government Act," a spokesperson from the Office of Local Government said.
"The Local Government Act allows councils to sell property to recoup rates and charges that have remained unpaid for more than five years ‒ or more than one year for vacant land ‒ but this should only be used as a last resort."
Ms Oldham said the council had "strictly complied with these legislative requirements".
"Councillors decided at their March meeting to provide some rate relief due to the impact of COVID-19," she said.
"This included extending the interest-free period on overdue notices by 60 days for those who successfully applied for a reduction, reducing the minimum weekly repayment for overdue rates to $25 for those who requested new arrangements and to stop any new legal action."
Ms Oldham said the council was not required to advise the Office of Local Government of its intention to sell ratepayers' properties.