21 October 2022

Riverina council softens stance after residents' outrage at proposed 52 per cent rate hike

| Oliver Jacques
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Alison Egan standing arms crossed

Alison Egan sees herself not as the ‘leader’ but the ‘translator’. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

Leeton Shire Council general manager Jackie Kruger says she has heard “loud and clear” from residents that a proposed 52 per cent increase in general rates over the next two years could be a “step too far”, following a series of heated community information sessions on the topic.

Council rates are what local governments charge home and property owners to pay for things like library services, and roads, pools and sewerage maintenance.

Leeton’s local government is considering what’s called a special rate variation – an increase much higher than what the NSW Government usually allows them to make. The council initially wanted to make an application to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) – the NSW Government authority that decides on council rate changes – to lift rates by 24 per cent in 2023/24 and 23 per cent in 2024/25. When added to the regular permitted annual rate rises, residents were facing an overall jump of 52 per cent in just two years, a rise of about $530 for the average household.

“I’m having a heart attack just thinking about it,” pensioner Kathleen Siemionow said.

“I have two grandchildren in my care and I’ve already had to go back to work to support them. I don’t know how I’ll be able to afford it.”

In response, Ms Kruger said: “Council would never want to see people lose their homes because of rates … we have a very sympathetic view towards pensioners, we may look at increasing our discretionary payment for pensioners.”

Jackie Kruger speaking to meeting.

Jackie Kruger addressing a community information session. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

Following feedback from residents, the general manger said council would present some alternative options to the community during further consultation.

“We’re going to formally consult the community on a four-year option or possibly a five-year option,” Ms Kruger said.

This means that the rate rise would be gradually spread over four or five years, to ease the yearly blow.

Ms Kruger also said council would seek community feedback on what services they’d be willing to have cut back, as a different means of saving money.

These options will be incorporated in a ‘have your say survey’ that will be released on the Leeton Shire Council website on Monday 24 October.

Mayor Tony Reneker said a special rate increase was necessary because the council didn’t receive enough money to cover its costs and maintain the services it offers. He said this was due to the rising cost of materials, energy and services.

Council claims IPART hasn’t allowed them to increase rates as much as needed in recent years, and the Federal Government has reduced its financial support to local governments.

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Leeton mum Alison Egan, a former council worker, doesn’t buy this argument. She has led the charge against the special rate hike on social media.

“What other business would be able to just increase their price by 52 per cent?” she asked.

“I understand we’ve all faced rising costs. We certainly don’t begrudge them a rate rise … but the amount is massive.”

“The reasons they’ve given for the rise also impact on every other council in NSW. But no other council are lifting their rates so high.”

Ms Kruger said she expected many other councils to also apply for a special rate variation, given the difficult economic times.

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Ms Egan also said she was concerned by the way the council had communicated with residents on the rate rise.

“I wouldn’t say they’ve been very responsive. The fact that you can’t comment on their Facebook page is incredibly frustrating. They’ll put these statements out there and you’ve just got no way to question or rebut what they’re saying.”

The general manager responded by saying: “We don’t have the resources to monitor [Facebook] all the time. Residents can send us a question anytime and we will post the response on Facebook, as we have been doing.

“We have done a lot of consultation for people to have their say … I don’t believe a single session ended without the opportunity to ask a question.”

According to Ms Egan, though, “there was a lot of dancing around, a lot of not answering the question,” she said.

Another attendee, Anna Ellen, said the sessions were more like “an advertising blurb”.

Two women standing

Anna Ellen and Kathleen Siemionow are not impressed. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

The community has looked to Ms Egan as a leader in the fight against the rate hike, but she sees her role differently.

“People were not looking for a hero for want of a better word, but for someone to translate. The information provided is complex … I have dabbled in local government so have a basic understanding, that’s allowed me to navigate my way through. But for the majority of the population, it’s over their heads.”

Ultimately, she fears for the future of the town in which she was born and raised.

“We’re already an expensive place to live … it’s difficult already to attract new people to the town … to further add rates to that is potentially the last nail in the coffin for our community.”

The final in-person council information session on the special rate variation will be held at the CBD Kiosk, Pine Avenue at 11 am on Tuesday 25 October.

The council said they would make a decision on whether to apply for a special rate variation by November 2022, based on the feedback they heard over the coming weeks.

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