Proposed rate changes forced on ratepayers in Cootamundra and Gundagai by the amalgamation of the two former shires have been put in abeyance while the council sends an urgent SOS to the NSW government.
At its meeting on Tuesday night, Cootamundra-based councillors backed a motion by deputy mayor Dennis Palmer to put the changes on hold pending an appeal for help from the government to enable it to stage the changes to reduce the shock for farmers hit by drought and covid-19.
The council will write urgent letters to the minister for local government, Shelly Hancock, and the member for Cootamundra, Steph Cooke, asking for support.
The proposed rate changes in the former Cootamundra shire would mean an increase for farmers, but a decrease for town residents. In Gundagai, they would result in a decrease for farmers, but an increase for residents.
The changes would not bring in any greater rates income for the council than it received in the previous three financial years since the amalgamation in 2017.
Before proposing the motion, Cr Palmer said it was not a result of social media activity, but was an issue "we, the council, have been wrestling with for some months".
"At last month's meeting I promoted a process to stage a rate increase over several years," he said. "I was unable to gain enough support to have the draft operational plan modified.
"Tonight I ask council to recognise that it is time to pursue the minister for a determination.
"I also draw everyone's attention to minister Hancock's newsletter of June 26 which states 'with individuals, families and businesses across the state battling the impacts of drought, bushfires and Covid-19 pandemic, now is not the time for a rating upheaval'."
Cr Palmer then proposed: (1) Council will recognise the social and economic impact of the current economic climate on our community. Understanding and appreciating the situation we find ourselves in now as we battle the impact of drought and Covid-19 requires us to revise and review our earlier decision in regard to rate harmonisation (2) In view of the significant unreasonably large increases for many ratepayers that will result from adoption of our proposed ordinary rates for 2020-21 financial year urgent representation be made to the minister for local government for an approval of an ordinary rate increase over several years, so as to transition the increase of the financial impact, say over three years (3) The support of the member for Cootamundra, Steph Cooke, be requested in representations to the minister (4) In recognition that the council cannot delay the levying of rates for an extended period an extraordinary meeting needs to be held to consider the minister's response as soon as it is received (5) Because of the time constraints placed on council if this decision is in the negative from the minister we have no option but to apply rate harmonisation as legislated."
Seconding the motion, Cr Gil Kelly referred to a submission from Peter McClintock, of Evolve Pastoral Co Pty Ltd, which said "increase in land valuation does not assist with the capacity to pay increased rates - for most farmers land values are just a number on a page".
"I believe we should not implement these high rate charges in one go, but to be implemented over a number of years."
Opposing the motion, Cr Doug Phillips said that while rates would go up for some, if it is delayed there are a lot of people already paying more than their fair share who will have to continue to pay it.
"As I understand it, we cannot do it over stages. It's either in out. Whilst it would be great to have the minister answer, it's mostly likely the government will say no, because if they did it for us they'd have to do it for every single council in NSW."
Mayor Abb McAlister agreed, saying the council had been caught "holding the baby".
"I just feel that if you stage it over three years you're gradually putting a bit on the ones that've got to pay more, but you're making the other ones just wait longer before they get what they should be getting.
"I'm not blaming our local member one bit because she wasn't here when this amalgamation happened."
Cr David Graham said the council were all in support of getting Dr Drew involved, but all of a sudden now "we seem to have done a backflip".
"The big point we are missing is we are not raising one extra cent but we are quite happy in our long term plan for next year and the year after and the year after that to be putting in a 17.5% rise.
"If we don't get those special rate variations and the fact that we can't get rental out of water and sewer we're going to go into negative territory.
"Cr Phillips and I as the finance committee have sent some recommendations on cost savings to the general manager, and those savings can be made to get us back to a break-even point."
Cr Leigh Bowden supported the motion, saying Cootamundra farmers were objecting to the timing, not the rate increases in themselves.
"Professor Drew talked about rate shock, and this is what it is. The reason some of us have been a bit slow on the uptake is because we didn't see the actual figures until recently.
"The Cootamundra farmers who are most impacted are requesting some time to get their finances in order and to prepare for those rate increases."
"I believe in miracles, so we should ask if there's any way there can be a glidepath to bring in the rate harmonisations more gradually."
Cr Penny Nicholson said there was a big push from the ratepayers whose rates will be going up, "but let's be mindful of the ratepayers that are missing out on their rates going down".
Cr Charlie Sheahan said the important thing was the cost shock.
"You have to give people that little bit of time, particularly under the circumstances our community is experiencing now."
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