A former Byron councillor says a recent announcement by the shire’s GM Ken Gainger that council is looking at reducing sewerage charges is nothing more than ‘a sweetener’ and will be ‘forgotten by 2017-18’.
Tom Tabart, a former Greens councillor and member of the Water and Recycling Committee, has been a strong critic of council’s handling of what he describes as its ‘malfunctioning STPs’ [sewerage treatment plants].
Earlier this week Mr Gainger issued a media release saying that the ‘75 per cent of Byron Council ratepayers who are serviced by council’s water and sewer services will get a reduction in their utilities (water and sewerage) rates to the tune of $100 per year beginning in the 2017/18 financial year.’
The offer follows ongoing debate – and outrage in some quarters – at the council’s plan to massively hike residential rates in order to remain ‘fit for the future’.
Mr Gainger, said the opportunity for a sewerage rate reduction had come about through ‘operational efficiencies’ and ‘revised strategic planning targets due to better asset management planning.’
‘This is good news for Byron ratepayers who are facing the prospect of their general rates being increased substantially to fund much needed infrastructure (roads) renewal across the shire,’ he said in the release.
Mr Gainger added that the impact of proposed increases to the general rates, which would see average residential rates increase by between $382 and $685 over four years depending on which Special Rate Variation option the council selects, would now be offset by the $100 per annum reduction in water and sewer rates.
Sewerage plants ‘overloaded’
But Mr Tabart has pooh-poohed the suggestion in the light of recent letters to the editor from himself and former council employee Alan Dickens, both of whom claim major problems with the sewerage mains in Mullumbimby, which they say is overloading the relatively recently completed Brunswick Valley STP in wet weather.
Mr Dickens is also critical of a plan to a pipe effluent from Ocean Shores STP to the already overloaded Brunswick Valley STP
Mr Tabart told Echonetdaily he believes it is ‘most unlikely’ any reduction will be possible in the in water and sewage charges.
‘The claimed “efficiencies” need to be fully quantified and examined in the context of the $50 million outstanding debt versus the $10 million surplus in this department,’ he said.
‘This is not to even mention the capital outlay that will be required to replace the Mullumbimby sewer, devise cost effective solutions for reuse, repair malfunctioning STPs in the face of increasing demand and upgrade the New Brighton system which I believe has been malfunctioning for some time,’ he added.
‘It is my belief that Mr Gainger has just tossed this in a sweetener against the rate rise and is trusting figures fed to him by some staff members hoping it will be forgotten by 2017-18,’ Mr Tabart told Echonetdaily.
A council spokesperson said councillors will be looking at an in-depth water and sewer report in February.
But argy-bargy aside, there maybe a prospect of rate relief on the horizon for some Byron Shire residents after IPART last week recommended a move to the setting of council rates based on the capital improved value (CIV) of land rather than its rather than its unimproved value.
Mr Gainger also flagged this in his media release.
Mr Gainger said that such a change would fix current rating inequities whereby the owners of ‘million-dollar mansions’ pay similar rates to the owners of ‘modest houses’.
‘A CIV based valuation system is likely to see the rate burden distributed more fairly, which would be welcomed by many in our shire,’ he said.
He also stated that the council has developed a hardship policy, which ‘contemplates disadvantaged ratepayers being offered some rate relief.’
Byron Shire Council will be considering the Special Rate Variation at its meeting today (Thursday, December 15).