Gwydir Shire hit with another 15 per cent rate rise

John CoultonGWYDIR Shire Council has avoided a savage round of job losses and service cuts after its appeal for a substantial rate rise was given the green light last month. The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) announced it had approved the council’s application to increase general income by more than the rate peg amount of 1.8 per cent from July 1.

It means rates that rose by just over 15 per cent last financial year will rise by another 15 per cent in 2016/17, to be retained permanently in the council’s rate base.

Last year Gwydir Shire applied for an increase of 15 per cent for both 2015/16 and 2016/17, but IPART approved only a temporary increase of 15 per cent for 2015/16. Mayor John Coulton said the increase was vital if the council was to avoid a painful round of cuts.

“It’s a bit of a relief,” he said.

“We’d done our budgets based on (getting) the rate rise, and without it we were looking at staff redundancies and service cuts.”

Last year, when IPART only approved half of what the council had asked for, it said it had done so because there was inadequate consultation with the community.

Cr Coulton said this time around the council had stepped up its round of consultations, even engaging an independent expert from the University of Technology Sydney who held workshops on the subject with community representatives.

He conceded that while not everyone would be happy with the rise, there was “a reasonable acceptance” within the community.

Based on the council’s application, the average residential rate will increase by $95 in 2016/17, the average business rate by $228, and the average farmland rate by $729, with an additional $1.6 million expected to be generated above the rate peg over the next four years.

Cr Coulton was quick to emphasise, though, that the additional funds would only allow the council to retain its current service and staffing levels, with nothing left over for any extra projects.

He said there had been no rate rises over and above the rate pegging amount for almost 40 years and the council was now paying the price.

“We’re really just in catchup mode after all those years when previous councils didn’t have any rises,” Cr Coulton said.

“We’re trying to consolidate our general fund … (because) we’re short on cash and the situation is desperate.”

Cr Coulton also said they hadn’t been helped by the last round of amalgamations in 2004, when Gwydir Shire was created by the merging of Yallaroi, Bingara and part of the former Barraba shire.

“In terms of the cost of that, we stopped counting at $3.6 million … and we’re still trying to catch up,” he said.

Cr Coulton said he couldn’t envisage any further rises above the rate peg at this stage.

IPART chairman Peter Boxall said the council had its application approved because it had demonstrated a clear need for the additional revenue, and shown it was taking steps to improve productivity and contain costs.

“We consider that the increase is reasonable, given historically low rate levels, and the council’s hardship policy to assist ratepayers with payment difficulties,” he said.

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