Tweed ratepayers have been spared a proposed environmental levy that would have added an average of around $13 a year to their rates bill.
Tweed shire councillors last night decided to defer consideration of the one-per cent, 10-year levy which pro-development Cr Warren Polglase had proposed in order to leverage state funding for six major environmental projects.
The levy plan now has to wait to be considered till after a shire-wide environmental sustainability strategy is completed, an assessment of other funding sources for such projects, and an assessment of the community’s ‘capacity to pay’ for it.
Debate on the issue at the meeting at Banora Point Community Centre, the first one to be held outside council’s Murwillumbah headquarters in five years, dragged on for almost an hour as up to 25 locals, many from the local residents group, watched on.
Last month’s decision by councillors to consider the levy in the 2014-15 budget deliberations only included funding for Tweed River bank management (such as rock revetment to prevent further erosion),
But that was rescinded on a motion by Crs Polglase, Gary Bagnall and Carolyn Byrne with a 5-2 vote (Crs Bagnall, Byrne against).
Cr Polglase said the reason for the rescission motion and change of mind on his original proposal, which only included the Tweed River project, came about after lobbying by environmental groups, and he now had a ‘better idea’ to expand the programs for funding by the levy.
But his replacement motion (which included biodiversity and bushland management, vertebrate pest management, sustainable agricultural program, sustainability programs, integrated water cycle management, and riverbank management) was narrowly defeated 3-4 (Crs Polglase, Byrne and Youngblutt for).
Cr Polglase had argued that a ‘broader view’ of what projects should be funded was needed and the community would be also be given more opportunity for their input.
His stance drew praise from an unusual quarter, with the Greens Cr Milne commending him for ‘introducing the levy plan in the first place and not just picking one project’.
Deputy mayor Michael Armstrong, a staunch opponent of the levy, said an informal briefing to councillors recently had provided ‘disturbing facts’ about the capacity to pay of many Tweed ratepayers, especially pensioners, with 40 per cent of locals already under financial pressure.
‘Are we hurting the people of the Tweed by rushing this? Let’s have a thorough assessment of whether people who live here can afford it,’ Cr Armstrong said.
‘We also need a proper review of the projects and be guided by the (environment) strategy.
‘What’s the point of slugging ratepayers with a one per cent increase if funding can be sought from other sources?’ Cr Armstrong said.
But Cr Polglase said it would take too long to wait for the strategy and assessments to be completed, at least over two years, which would hold funding for environmental projects back.
He said the levy was only a $2.55 a week, or around $12-to-$13 a year, ‘and I’m sure many people in the community can afford it’.
He said some councillors had always talked about protecting the environment and now should ‘show leadership and direction’ in finding ways of getting funding for environmental projects.
‘We’ve had a workshop, now let’s get the feedback,’ Cr Polglase said.
Cr Youngblutt said many ‘renters’ would not have to pay the levy and only ratepayers had to, drawing flak from Cr Milne who said the remarks were ‘derogatory to the public’.
But Cr Youngblutt said ‘It is ratepayers. And the ones I’ve spoken to are happy to go ahead with this for the environment’.
Cr Byrne said environmental costs had to be managed and could only be done if funding was available.
She said it was ‘a small levy to be able to leverage other funding’ and ‘another bucket of money’ available only for the environment’.
‘If we defer this, it will take another two to four years before we get started,’ she said, adding that such a delay ‘equates to $2 million in lost funding’ which could fund ‘lots of projects’.
‘I know rocks on the riverbank is not a pretty sight although they soften over time,’ she said, referring to the riverbank erosion project in the original decision for the levy funding.
Cr Milne said the shire had 3,000 hectares of bushland which was ‘extremely onerous’ to manage and ‘as much as I’d love to get the levy done this year, it may not be used for the best environmental outcomes’.
She said the riverbank project was not supported by the Tweed River Advisory Committee and councillors should ‘pull back’ from the levy plan till the environmental strategy was done.