Council takes rate rise scenario to the streets

Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council mayor Abb McAlister, Cr David Graham, manager of finance and customer service Tim Swan and customer service officer Heather Dowell man the council’s listening post in Sheridan Street on Wednesday.

Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council hit the streets this week to consult with the community after indicating that the council will apply to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) for a Special Rate Variation (SRV) for the 2021-22 year.

A special rate variation allows the council to increase rates by more than the annual IPART rate cap.

The cumulative impact of the proposed SRV is substantial and sits at 62.6 per cent over five years, including the assumed rate peg.

The council says the purpose of the SRV is to try to assure financial sustainability, with a view to maintaining service levels wherever possible, in response to very significant cost pressures imposed by the 2016 forced amalgamation, and subsequent rate path freeze.

In order for the council to gauge feedback, residents have been invited to fill in surveys and two citizen juries were this week held in Gundagai and Cootamundra.

Two public meetings, conducted by local government expert Professor Joseph Drew, were also held this week to present the case for a SRV and receive community feedback. 

On Wednesday and Thursday, listening posts were conducted in Gundagai and  Cootamundra respectively, which gave people the opportunity to either learn more about the SRV, or to give their feedback.

Mayor Abb McAlister was on the panel at Gundagai’s listening post on Wednesday where he said it was clear that residents understood the SRV is a result of the forced merger.  

“People are certainly concerned about the amount of the rate rise we’re looking at and they understand that it’s come about because of the amalgamation; all the cost pressures and diseconomies of scale due to the 2016 merger,” Cr McAlister said.

“People are saying if they have to pay it, they are more willing to pay the rate rise under a demerged council, and that’s residents in both communities. 

“In Cootamundra on Tuesday night, they asked [at the public meeting] who wants the demerger and everyone put their hand up. If there was a SRV, they’d prefer to pay it under a demerged council also.

“We have explained that if we don’t get the SRV, the other option is to cut services by 30 per cent and staff by 25 per cent.

“I have found that the majority of people aren’t blaming the council or the council staff, they can see that this has all come about due to the State Government decision made in May 2016, and that’s why we’ve had a Boundaries Commission review, because people would like to see it changed.”

Surveys were conducted at both public meetings this week, the results of which will be discussed by the council at a meeting on Friday (today).

An extraordinary council meeting will be held on February 2 where the council will make a final decision regarding the application they will take to IPART.

“You can certainly see from all the feedback we’ve received so far that people don’t want to pay a rate rise, but they understand that it’s come about because of the four years we’ve been amalgamated,” Cr McAlister said.

Comments from residents who stopped by the Gundagai listening post included one ratepayer who said the councils should never have been merged in 2016 and the rate rise is “unacceptable”, to others who were keen to learn more about what a SRV is. 

One resident said she accepts that the rate rise in “unavoidable”, while another stated that while she doesn’t entirely understand the SRV, she would not want to see the council go into administration.

At Monday night’s public meeting in Gundagai, Professor Drew presented the results from community surveys regarding the SRV, which were distributed to Gundagai and Cootamundra residents in December.

When asked about their level of satisfaction with the amalgamation, 58 per cent of respondents were “very dissatisfied”, 20 per cent were “dissatisfied”, 16 per cent were “neither”, 5 per cent were “satisfied”, and one per cent was “very satisfied”.

Under the preferred option question, 34 per cent said they would like to see a reduction in staff and expenses, 33 per cent said they would accept a SRV, and 33 per cent said “no” to a new SRV.

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