BURNING QUESTION: Rates debate reignited in parliament
The tussle regarding agricultural rates in the Bundaberg region continues, with a question in parliament triggering the latest volley.
For months there has been a stalemate between a farming consortium (AgForce, Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers, Canegrowers Isis and Bundaberg Canegrowers) and Bundaberg Regional Council (BRC) about a rates rise for agricultural land in the region.
While the farmers are opposed to the rate rise, the council remained steadfast on their decisions regarding rated for the region.
On February 24 Member for Burnett Stephen Bennett said asked the Deputy Premier and State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning Minister Steven Miles:
With reference to Queensland's economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic and barriers to productivity such as the disparity between farmland values and local government rates. Will the Deputy Premier mandate Local Governments' compliance with the principles set out in the State Government's 'Guideline on Equity and Fairness in Rating for Queensland Local Governments'?
General rates are calculated by multiplying the rateable value of a property by the category's cents in the dollar rate.
Bundaberg Regional Council Cr Steve Cooper welcomed the Deputy Premier's recent response to the Burnett MP's previous Question on Notice but the farming consortium is far from satisfied.
Speaking to the NewsMail about his Question last month, Mr Bennett said as an MP, it was his responsibility to represent the community but stopped short of saying he thought the BRC had operated "outside their authorised capacity".
"If I didn't ask the questions our community wants answers to, I wouldn't be doing my job. It's as simple as that," he said.
"Sadly, our farmers are already facing a very uncertain future.
"They're being hit from all sides with the drought, no water security with the loss of Paradise Dam, high electricity and water prices, and a State Labor Government who has forgotten they exist."
Mr Bennett said it was only reasonable for questions around guidelines on equity and fairness in rating to be asked on behalf of farmers "who are struggling to make ends meet".
"I am by no means implying that the Bundaberg Regional Council has done anything outside their authorised capacity; they must operate within a framework imposed on them and they have done just that," he said.
"However it is also important to recognise that a conversation about guidelines and fairness will encourage future prosperity in the region and avoid unexpected expenses for our farmers."
In the tabled response to Mr Bennett's question, Dr Miles' answer reads:
The guideline on equity and fairness in rating for Queensland local governments (the Rating Guideline) outlines principles on revenue-raising to assist local governments to develop a fair and equitable rating regime. The principles are for local governments to consider when making their rating decisions.
Rating Guideline restrict local governments' ability to set rates and charges according to local circumstances. The autonomy of local governments to set rates and charges according to local needs and their communities' expectations is fundamental to the Queensland local government system. This is especially so as communities begin to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It remains the government's policy to not intervene in those local government decisions.
Bundaberg Canegrowers' Dean Cayley said "this stepping away from the challenge to support farmers in the food bowl of Queensland was disgraceful".
"We expected better of Dr Miles and Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk - and this blow on top of the broken election promises by Mayor Jack Dempsey to farmers to keep rates at CPI (Consumer Price Index) is astounding," he said.
"With each council rates cycle, it's going to be even more of a disaster for the farming industry, and the jobs we support."
The council's CEO Steve Johnston previously said Cr Dempsey was correct in his pre-election statement that the overall rates increase would be in line with CPI and that's what had occurred.
"For more than 80 per cent of ratepayers the increase was below CPI," he said.
The council's organisational services portfolio spokesman Cr Steve Cooper said the Minister's statement was "predictable and welcome".
"We don't want a situation in Queensland like other states where the [state] government determines how much rates can rise," Cr Cooper said.
"This diversionary tactic by the agricultural rates consortium was a media stunt to keep their negative campaign alive." Cr Cooper said
"Canegrowers and AgForce would have served their members better by encouraging them to object to valuation increases when they had the chance.
"The Mayor wrote to them, suggesting they make objections before the Valuer-General issued the final valuations and only a few dozen took this advice and did so.
"This suggests that Canegrowers and AgForce either let their members down by failing to communicate the opportunity, or they were happy to accept the higher valuations because of the increased equity it meant for rural landholders.
"They could have put forward an argument that valuation spikes were an aberration caused by corporate land purchases, but they didn't."
A Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy spokesperson previously told the NewsMail a total of 68 objections were received from 1800 rural land valuations issued in 2020 for the Bundaberg Regional Council area - 34 of which were upheld and reduced land valuations were reissued.
The spokesperson said rural land values in the Bundaberg Regional Council area increased by 46.6 per cent in 2020 due to a strong demand for both small and larger size rural properties.
Cr Cooper said the council had adopted a fair budget in a difficult COVID-impacted year, which confined rate increases to the categories where valuations increased, mainly agricultural and oceanfront.
"It would have been totally unfair to spread the impact of those valuation increases to residential ratepayers, mums and dads, pensioners and small business operators," he said.
"Canegrowers and AgForce should put down their pitchforks, admit they failed their members and focus on issues where they can influence outcomes in a positive way."
AgForce's Tom Marland said "The State Government's Guideline on Equity and Fairness in Rating for Queensland Local Governments states that local governments must be mindful not to take into account the 'capacity of the owner of land' to pay rates".
"It also states that the setting of rates charges must not be used as a revenue-raising mechanism to subsidise general local government activities," Mr Marland said.
"In addition, the Guideline requires 'a reasonable level of predictability in the amount of rates levied on parcels of land' and says 'any significant increases in rates should be reasonable'.
"In no way does an increase of up to 235 per cent on Category 9 farmland by Mayor Jack Dempsey, his Councillors and the BRC CEO meet those guidelines.
"These guidelines should be mandated by the State Government as a minimum for all Queensland councils, including Bundaberg, when setting rates."
In a social media post last year, Cr Dempsey said only one property went up 235 per cent with the valuation for that property changing from $113,000 to $375,000 and that the average increase in total rates and charges for agricultural properties was 45 per cent.