Ballina Shire Council will push ahead with its plan to raise rates to fund upgrades of its swimming pools at Ballina and Alstonville.
That’s despite stiff opposition from ratepayers and questions about the validity the consultation program.
At yesterday’s meeting, councilors grappled with the unpopular decision to apply for a rate rise, especially given the feedback from the community.
Of 367 written submissions, 300 were against a rate rise, with only 45 letters of support.
A report to councilors acknowledged that the 51 people who attended a public meeting in Ballina were ‘largely against’ the proposal, while Lennox Head and Alstonville meetings had a ‘balance of people for and against the proposal’.
There was not much joy for councilors in an online survey either, with 70 per cent of 1,750 respondents saying they were against a rate rise.
The only saving grace for councilors backing the rate rise was a survey from polling company Micomex that identified 83 per cent of people being supportive of the pool upgrades.
The problem was, once those respondents were told about the special rate rise, the level of approval fell to 60 per cent.
Both Crs Jeff Johnson and Ken Johnston questioned the validity of the Micromex survey, suggesting it had been tailored to achieving a positive result.
‘I thought the community would be supportive of the proposal … but the results show the complete opposite,’ Cr Jeff Johnson said.
‘It is obviously not a priority of the public for us to supply world-class facilities with extra fees.
He urged councilors to just maintain the existing pools and consider an ocean pool that would be free, and available all year round.
‘The results are overwhelmingly against and unlike Cr Worth I don’t believe it’s a noisy minority,’ he said.
Cr Johnson also questioned the Micromex survey, saying it seemed tailored for a positive result but still showed that 40 per cent of respondents were against.
General manager Paul Hickey rejected the assertion saying it was ‘totally inappropriate’.
‘That’s my view,’ Cr Johnson responded.
Despite the opposition, Cr Paul Worth, seconded by Robyn Hordern, moved a recommendation to proceed with the rate rise application.
‘I acknowledge the feedback from the community and I personally don’t want to see rates go up but I believe they’ve got to go up,” Cr Worth said.
‘We need the pools rebuilt and we need money to do so.’
Cr Sue Meehan said she agreed, saying ‘we’ve got to look after the assets we’ve got’, while Cr Hordern said both pools had outlived their maintenance schedules so ‘we need to make them safe healthy and accessible’.
Cr Sharon Cadwallader said it was a difficult decision to support a rate increase but the council had a responsibility to upgrade the pools.
She said however that she did not want to see entry charges increased at the pools, especially as they were popular with people from lower socio economic groups, such as Indigenous and disabled people.
Ballina mayor David Wright summed up the feeling of all councilors when he said ‘no-one wants to put up rates’.
He pointed out however that Ballina shire council was ‘sustainable with the lowest rates on the coast’.
Cr Wright also rejected suggestions that the council should simply sell off some of its other assets to fund the pool upgrades.
Following the lengthy debate, the council voted to authorise general manager Paul Hickey to proceed with an application to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal for a rate increase.
The application will request a 5.41 per cent increase for 2015/16 and 5.34 per cent increase for 2016/17.