WITH a show of hands at the Special Council Meeting last Wednesday, South Gippsland Shire Councillors reduced the rates paid by a handful of shire residents, thereby forcing the 19,000 or so other ratepayers to pay a larger share of the rate burden.
Against the advice of shire officers and despite the protestations of their four colleagues (Crs Jim Fawcett, Mohya Davies, Lorraine Brunt and Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks), five of the nine Councillors (Crs Don Hill, Andrew McEwen, Jeanette Harding, Bob Newton and Kieran Kennedy) voted for a change to the 2015-2016 Budget and to the 2014-2018 Rating Strategy to allow an extension of the reduced Farming rate to include farmland measuring between 20 and 18.3 hectares.
Cr Don Hill’s successful motion – an eleventh hour alternative to the original motion on the Agenda supporting the status quo – was moved in response to a submission from Dollar couple Frank and Claire Oostermeyer. They claimed that their property was to all intents and purposes a farm and was formerly rated as a farm, but since it was below 20 hectares in size it was now classified as rural lifestyle, rated as residential/general and their rates had consequently gone up 22 per cent.
Cr Newton said he supported Cr Hill’s motion, regarding it as “reasonably fair”, though he thought the words “bona fide primary producer” should be added. “There’s got to be a little bit of fat on the bone…We’ve only put $20,000 [extra] into the Budget so far today…There’s got to be room to move,” he added.
Acting CEO Jan Martin said that there had been insufficient time for shire officers to consider the ramifications of changing the emphasis from the size of a landholding to its use (as a bona fide farm or not). She suggested Cr Hill put a Notice of Motion in and pursue the matter at a later date.
Cr Hill, however, stood firm, and Cr McEwen spoke up in support, saying: “This Council makes a song and dance about our farming community, but here we are failing to assist them!” Claiming the situation was ‘Kafkaesque’ or like something out of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ he said Council should instead be looking at the question of ‘What is a farmer?’ “We haven’t taken into account the nature of the land but only the size of the land when classifying properties for rate purposes. It should be decided on the basis of whether the landowners are farmers or not.”
Cr Fawcett argued in vain against making a change to the Rating Strategy, which had, he pointed out, been developed by a committee after a lengthy period of consultation and was due to be reviewed in a matter of months.
“The crux of the matter is that the committee decided on an acreage. They realised that people around that mark would be advantaged or disadvantaged, but it was just a question of efficiency,” he said. He acknowledged that anomalies exist and that some people, like the Oostermeyers, farm their properties to capacity while others do not and he said that he had some sympathy for the Oostermeyers “but it’s just a fact of life that the figure is 20 hectares and I strongly encourage [Council] to hold the line”.
“Let the Rating Strategy work and see what the review comes up with,” urged Cr Fawcett, and pointed out that there was not a single submission to the original Rating Strategy consultation asking for the threshold to be set lower than 20 hectares.
“It’s a numbers game,” said Cr Davies, explaining that she would also be voting against Cr Hill’s motion. “Cr Hill is fooling around with numbers and I’m disappointed to see him do that. It’s an attempt to undermine the Rating Strategy.”
Cr Brunt and Cr Hutchinson-Brooks claimed Cr Hill’s alternative motion was being rushed through Council.
“We do not have enough information about the effects to make a decision here today,” said Cr Brunt.
“It smacks of policy on the run. We should perhaps wait for the Rating Strategy review in 18 months’ time,” said Cr Hutchinson-Brooks. “It’s a question of good governance and due diligence. It’s dangerous to make a change – it sets a precedent.”
He foreshadowed landowners asking for the threshold to be reduced even further. “Why not 15 hectares – that’s the size of my land! I have stock but I don’t regard myself as a farmer. We’re entering an area of risk if we don’t go through the due diligence process.”
His arguments fell on deaf ears. Cr Hill’s motion, seconded by Cr McEwen, was supported by Crs Kennedy, Newton and Harding. If these Councillors had any qualms about not following due diligence, it was not apparent.