Richmond Valley Council (RVC) voted unanimously on Tuesday night to increase rates by 12.3 per cent, well above the NSW rate peg, followed by four annual increases of 5.3 per cent.
The council is applying to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) for the increase but a seasoned council-watcher questions its validity.
In its application, RVC described the rises as ‘modest’ and said that ‘that the majority of Richmond Valley Council residents requested it be approved in total’.
But Dr Richard Gates, president of the Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome, believes the council has ‘failed to make a convincing argument for the rise’ and that there was ‘precious little evidence demonstrating community support for the application’.
Dr Gates said the application was ‘a classic example of spin-doctoring, with Council going well beyond the data’.
He said that the claim was based on a council telephone survey of 400 residents asking if they were aware RVC was seeking a special rate variation – to which 26 per cent said ‘no’ and 74 per cent ‘yes’.
But Dr Gates argued the 74 per cent success rate claimed by RVC did not include awareness about ‘the details and impacts of the proposal’.
He also questioned why RVC failed to make the full results of the survey available for public scrutiny.
‘Council published only some of the results for its application but failed to publish the full report on its website. Why? What is being kept from us? And the community had only four days in which to review the application, leaving little time to obtain and look at the evidence Council was using to support its application.’
Dr Gates said only 16 people turned up at RVC’s community consultation meetings at Casino and Evans Head in December to discuss the Special Rates Variation.
‘Council is now claiming in its application to IPART that “the poor turnout may have been a reflection of approval for Council’s plans” and “that the lack of persons attending strongly indicated the community was not concerned…”.’
But he suggested the real reason for low attendance may have had more to do with the timing of the meetings.
‘While the general manager had sent out a letter to ratepayers about the proposed rate variation on November 20 he did not say when community consultation meetings would be held. Why not?
‘Council advertised, over the January holiday period, various plans on which the Special Rate Variation is based – a standard ploy used by governments when they don’t want the community involved or to know what’s going on. And it has held a council meeting about the matter just six days before applications are to be closed, giving the community little time to organise or make informed objection.’
Dr Gates said that in contrast to the council’s consultation meetings, a community meeting organised in Evans Head last week saw 40 people turn up on just two days’ notice.
‘At that meeting no-one, except councillor Daniel Simpson, supported the application to IPART. We had more than five times the number turn up for our meeting compared with Council. Surely we are now entitled to say, using Council’s approach to data interpretation, that “there was an overwhelming vote against the Special Rate Variation” and “the majority of residents are against it”.
‘Council’s own survey data show that 76 per cent of ratepayers were prepared to pay only $2 or less per week increase on their rates whereas in the case of Evans Head ratepayers the Special Rate Variation is well above ‘willing-to-pay’ criteria established by the community. No wonder Council didn’t publish cumulative data.’
Dr Gates said he had found a number of simple errors in the council’s application and added, ‘these sorts of problems raise the question: how reliable are Council calculations and what other errors are there? In my view this is not a very competent and well-supported application.’
He said that coastal property owners are particularly discriminated against and he raised the issue of social disadvantage in Richmond Valley.
‘Richmond Valley is the near the bottom for the whole state, surpassed only by Kempsey, yet our council expects us to have the same benchmarks as other councils that have much lower levels of social disadvantage.
He questioned why the council was on the one hand claiming it needed additional revenue and on the other selling off its aerodrome so cheaply.
‘Why is it prepared to sell the state heritage-listed Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome and its runways, etc, for a pitiful $2.5 million, which is not even enough to cover the large debt it incurred in its ill-fated and unnecessary decontamination and destruction of part of the aerodrome for an incompatible retirement village?
‘And why is it being sold without coming to tender on the basis of an expression-of-interest that does not mention sale of the whole airfield?
‘There is little doubt Richmond Valley Council has lots of roads and bridges to manage over a large area but the small ratepayer base needs to stop being blamed and punished for this problem, particularly when the state occupies so much of the land and pays no rates.
‘IPART and the people of Richmond Valley need to reject the proposed Special Rate rort and Council needs to start to treat coastal ratepayers fairly as required by its Charter, Section 8, under the Local Government Act.
Applications to IPART close on March 24 and will be determined by mid June.