Bundaberg Regional Council CEO Steve Johnston.
Bundaberg Regional Council CEO Steve Johnston.

‘Set in concrete’: Why the council’s sticking to rates

AS TENSIONS continue to rise between growers and Bundaberg Regional Council, CEO Steve Johnston has explained that the council cannot alter an adopted budget.

However this is unlikely to deter the group of farming peak bodies advocating for the agricultural rates to be addressed, after reports some farms saw an increase of more than 200 per cent.

Earlier this week farmers launched a petition demanding the council agree to not increase any rates in the region by any more than the Consumer Price Index, a rule farmers claim most other local governments have adhered to.

The local 2020/21 budget was adopted on June 30, forecasting a 3.08 per cent increase total rate revenue, most of which was from the agricultural sector in light of higher land valuations.

General rates are calculated by multiplying the rateable value of a property by the category's 'cents in the dollar rate'.

There are 12 categories in Bundaberg Regional Council set in the current budget.

Every property is allocated one of these categories and each category has a cents in the dollar rate and a minimum general rate.

According to the budget, the agricultural land rate in the dollar of property value is 1.4077 and the minimum general rate is $1,137.

It is understood the land values for this sector were increased by 46 per cent and the council reduced the rate in the dollar by 9 per cent.

Mr Johnston said the council had to make a considered decision when it adopted the budget this year, given the fact there'd been a huge spike in valuation increases in the agriculture sector and only a "smattering" of other increases, mainly around the coastal area.

"That's quite an unusual situation where we had a huge rate increase in one category and the council's attitude at the time, when it set the budget, was that it felt that to try and spread the increase across other ratepayers who hadn't had valuation increases was inequitable," he said.

Mr Johnston said the council could not change the budget, even if they wanted to.

"The council, once it sets its budget, which includes its rating structure, under the legislation is set in concrete," he said.

"There's no capacity for the council to alter its budget once it's made that decision at its special budget meeting, which in our case happened on the 30th of June.

"I think future calls in terms of amending this year's budget will fall on deaf ears; but the council, if you look at its forward financial plan, has minimal rate increases forecast for the next few years, in alignment with CPI around 2/2.5 per cent."

Mr Johnston said once the budget was adopted, under the Queensland Local Government Act and the Queensland Local Government Regulation, the council could not alter its budget.

He said even if the council wanted to, there was no leeway or no way that the council could do that legally.

When asked if the council would want to change the budget if they could, Mr Johnston said he hadn't seen any indication from the council that they wanted to change the budget.

He recalled the budget was adopted unanimously.

Based on statistics given to Mr Johnston yesterday, about 80 per cent of ratepayers had paid their rates in full, by the due date or shortly thereafter.

And about 75 per cent of the agriculture category rates have been paid.

"I'm probably surprised that if three quarters of the ratepayers in that category have paid their rates that the representative groups, the peak groups, are taking the hard line that they are," he said.

AgForce's Tom Marland said the council's response was "rubbish".

Mr Marland argued they had the power to make concession for hardship across the category - capping the rates increase to the CPI.

Mr Marland said it was frustrating that they were in this position as farmers typically had a good relationship with the council - without having to reset the budget.

He said with bigger fish to fry, such as issues with Paradise Dam, electricity, and struggles with employment on-going, he hoped they could "put the swords down" and come to an arrangement.

Mr Johnston said the hardship policy was available to ratepayers on an individual basis to enter into payment plans, if they could prove financial hardship; rather than across an entire category.

This year the council is not charging interest on overdue rates, for any ratepayer, as a result of COVID-19.

Mr Johnston said ratepayers across the board had until December 31 to pay their rates in full, without incurring any additional charges for interest.

The CEO said the council had advised the Valuer General that it wouldn't require any valuation for the next financial year.

He said there had been a number of meetings with growers and peak body groups such as Canegrowers and fruit and vegetable groups, explaining the council's position.

Mr Johnson said the region's cane growers in particular were aware of the valuation increases several months ago and the potential impact that could have on rates.

"They met with us to try discuss how council could ameliorate that flow-on effect," he said.

"They've been very productive discussions, but clearly the peak bodies, and that's what they're there for, are still advocating and lobbying for a change in the council's position."

When asked if he anticipated this level of fall-out when outlining the budget, Mr Johnston said he was a little surprised by the outcome.

"I think we expected there'd be some criticism of the fact that the rates had increased in that category to the degree that they did, based on comments that the peak bodies had made to us prior to its adoption," he said.

"I'm probably a little surprised personally that they've taken the attitude that they have, in particular calling for a recasting of the budget, when I'm sure that the people who are making those comments would know what the legislation says."

 

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