ARARAT councillors will decide tonight whether to proceed with a uniform rate policy across the western Victorian municipality, after the State Government announced an inquiry into the council’s rating strategy.
Ararat Rural City mayor Cr Paul Hooper said it was “very much business as usual” as the inquiry will operate separate to council, but councillors now have two options to consider at their meeting tonight.
“They are to defer, pending recommendations from the inquiry or adopt the current draft.
“I do not know what options the majority of councillors will choose.”
Click here to get the latest Sheep Central story links sent to your email inbox.
The Minister for Local Government, Natalie Hutchins late last week appointed a Commission of Inquiry to consider the efficiency and effectiveness of the Rural City of Ararat’s rating strategy.
The decision came after a request for Government intervention was made by the Victorian Farmers Federation and Cr Hooper.
The draft budget proposes to bring to an end all differential rates in the city, increasing the total rates paid by farms to over 50 percent.
While the Rural City of Ararat, like all councils, is entitled to make its own decision on differential rates, changes this extreme deserve more careful consideration, the State Government said in a statement. The Commission of Inquiry has been appointed under the Local Government Act.
The inquiry’s commissioners will be announced this week and be required to report on the consultative process carried out to develop the budget and rating strategy, and the administrative capacity of the City, by the August 1.
They will also consult the ratepayers of Ararat on the council’s budget and rating strategy, and make recommendations to the councillors and the government.
The Victoria Farmers Federation applauded the necessary and decisive intervention of the State Government into the Ararat rates crisis.
“A Commission of Inquiry into the Rural City of Ararat’s rating strategy is welcomed by farmers in the shire,” VFF President David Jochinke said.
“Farmers are facing the prospect of being slugged with a rate hike of over 50pc which is having a devastating effect on the local community.
“The VFF released the results of a community survey earlier today showing the mental and physical stress this issue is causing ratepayers in the Ararat area,” Mr Jochinke said.
“The Rural City of Ararat Council has failed to provide adequate consultation with ratepayers or consideration to the fairness and equity of their proposed rating strategy and the Commission of Inquiry will have no trouble identifying these flaws.”
The VFF has been active in supporting farmers in the Ararat area along with lobbying government for a more fair and equitable rating system.
Farmers are opposing a council plan to cease raising municipal rates by differential rates and adopt a uniform rate of 0.5975 cents/$ Capital Improved Value for all general, commercial, industrial and farm properties
Previously farms were rated at 0.3952 cents/$CIV and all other ARCC property was rated at 0.7185-1.1496 cents/$CIV.
The VFF said a questionnaire, completed by nearly 200 Ararat locals, revealed 78pc of respondents experienced feelings of frustration, sadness and disappointment since the plan was first flagged by council last month.
The survey also showed 75pc of respondents spent the last month thinking too much about the proposal, while 34pc were having trouble sleeping and 17pc were drinking more, a sign of how toxic the issue has become, the VFF said.
“There is a real sense of despair in the community, which will only get worse if the rates proposal gets passed.
“We’ve spoken to farmers who could see rate rises of more than $20,000 under the proposed rating strategy,” he said.
“This is a cost they cannot manage.”
Mr Jochinke said the council had a responsibility to the safety of the farming community to ensure local primary producers wouldn’t face additional economic stress due to planned changes to their annual rates.
“The fate of nearly 2000 farmers is in the hands of the Ararat council and it is up to them to think about the potential impacts of a change to the rating strategy and do the right thing by the people they represent,” he said.
The council will meet on Tuesday at Alexandra Oval Community Centre, 1 Waratah Avenue, Ararat, at 6PM to vote on the rating strategy.