Accusations refuted

ARARAT - Accusations of misrepresentation and fraud by a ratepayer were vehemently refuted by Ararat Rural City Council at a special meeting held to hear submissions on the draft 2014/2015 Rating Strategy.

Wickliffe ratepayer David Hucker presented both a verbal and written submission to the Rating Strategy and challenged Council over options presented in the Draft Rating Strategy which he believed had been deleted and an alleged $300,000 error in last year's Budget and Rating Strategy.

In addition to this Mr Hucker recommended that Council go back to the 2010/2011 business plan adopted by Council to move the farm differential to 45 per cent this year and consider next year moving it to 37.5 per cent.

Mr Hucker told council that he had been most concerned with the way Ararat Rural City dealt with the farm rating strategy going back to 2008.

"The main issues relates to fairness and equity and we know that the Local Government Act quite clearly states, as do the ministerial guides, and as does the Draft Rating Strategy of Ararat Rural City, the need for equity," he said.

Mr Hucker believes the inequity between the farm sector and general sector now stands at a loading of 582 per cent against farming families.

"This equates to $4182 in rates for every person living on a farm or $10,455 per family on a farm, and this compares with $718 per person, combining the general, commercial and industrial sectors together, because that is the only fair way to compare the farming sector with rest," he said.

"A lot of people will remember when amalgamation occurred... and a lot of us worked very hard to get this municipality up and running.We argued with the minister and we increased the area of the rural city of Ararat by 10 to 15 percent, at least, to try to get a workable area.

"We were totally dismayed when the first rates came out after amalgamation."

Mr Hucker said in the original draft Rating Strategy released by Council it was stated there were five options presented for council to consider, however, when researching the strategy he found there weren't any options listed.

"So I rang council and I said could I get a copy of option five, seeing as it said councillors considered that for 2014. I was told option five didn't really exist, but seeing as I picked it up council would be happy to delete it. My concern is, you've issued the draft Rating Strategy as a public document and then you want to change it when you realise there is a significant error in it," he said.

"The reason I wanted to see option five, all councillors, except the two new councillors ... will remember last year there was a $300,000 error in option five as it was presented to the ratepayers. And what this did was indicate to ratepayers that the amount of rates that were going to be collected from the farm sector was $300,000 less than was going to be collected.

"If the council is happy to change documents that were put out to the public at a whim ... I don't see how this can be fair for the ratepayers when they haven't got the information in front of them.

"I think an error was made last year, and some people have said it was deliberately done to influence ratepayers, because the mathematical error, any high school maths student would have picked it up in a second.

"My understanding is that all you councillors are roughly considered as directors of a public company, while that is not true, that is roughly how you should see your positions I'm told.

"If this council was a public company and these sorts of things had gone on then I'm damn sure ASIC would be into it and would be accusing people of false advertising, misrepresentation and perhaps even fraud, so I ask councillors, knowing that what they tell the ratepayers and what they send the minister is not truthful, do they wake up at night worrying about this?

"And I ask will any councillors have the guts to jump up and send an email to the minister to advise him of this fact?

"A quote of Disraeli, that great British statesman, 'There are lies, damned lies and statistics', but I'm sure everyone will agree that a lot of the figures that are coming out of this council recently are not statistics."

Mayor Cr Paul Hooper asked the manager of corporate support Alistair Rowe to explain the alleged errors.

Mr Rowe said the error was a 'copying and pasting' error from the previous year's Rating Strategy, where he copied and pasted but omitted to make the changes prior to first making it available to the public.

"I suggested to him that this is why it is out in the public domain so we can look at it and if there's any errors we can fix it before it gets adopted in June," Mr Rowe said.

CEO Andrew Evans dismissed Mr Hucker's claims that anything fraudulent had occurred.

"The purpose of advertising the rating strategy and the budget, and we are required to do so, is so that members of the public like yourself put a submission in and so that Council can consider that, and Council can quite legitimately at the end of that submission process change either the Rating Strategy or the Budget.

"That's the process and the purpose of the process. The fact that it goes out like this and then alters on the night is something that is part of the democratic process and I don't believe indicates this council has done anything fraudulent.

"I would suggest that if you seriously believe that, you should go to the minister and I would be quite happy to deal with both you and the minister in that exercise."

Following the meeting Mayor Cr Paul Hooper and CEO Andrew Evans also spoke out against Dr Hucker's allegations.

"You can agree or disagree with the sort of job council and its officers are doing but - and this is my fourth term - I have never once ever witnessed, nor suspected, a council officer of deliberately misrepresenting the truth to everybody, either in verbal or written form and allegations of this form of Dr Hucker I find personally offensive and there is no place for it," Cr Hooper said.

"There's ample opportunity in what ever forum, even privately, to approach a councillor or me as mayor, and if any ratepayer or resident has significant concerns about any issue, we're available and council officers are available, we're here seven days a week."

CEO Andrew Evans said council was extremely disappointed at the comments made by Mr Hucker when presenting his submission on the draft 2014 Rating Strategy.

"It appears Mr Hucker's accusations may have been made without fully understanding the process Council followed in developing the 2013 Rating Strategy. When Council considered the changes to the differential rating system in 2013 a number of options were presented, providing what effect each option would have on the various classes of property based on the rates raised in 2012/13. From the accusations made by Mr Hucker it appears he has used the figures that were included in the proposed budget that included a seven per cent rate increase," Mr Evans said.

"The 2013 Rating Strategy clearly states the comparative figures used are based on the 2012/13 rates and that the rate in the dollar will be determined as part of the budget process; that 'these figures exclude any rate rise that Council may adopt in 2013/14' - page 24 of the 2013 Rating Strategy. 'Based on the current year [2012/13] total budgeted rate revenue, the amount received from General Properties under the new differentials, reduce by $324,300. Farm properties would pay $316,700 more, Commercial properties an extra $5,100 and Industrial properties an extra $2,900' - page 45 of the Rating Strategy 2013.

"Comparative figures cannot be included in a rating strategy if the Council has not voted on the rate rise for the following year.

The only error that was made in the 2014 Rating Strategy was to include the words 'option 5' on page 21 of the 2014 Rating Strategy. It appears Mr Hucker claims this to be a 'significant error'. The inclusion of these words is considered insignificant as on the same page it states 'The differentials rates have change a number of times over the recent years. Council is not intending to change the differential rating system for 2014/15'.

"If Mr Hucker still claims there was a $300,000 error in last year's budget and rating strategy, or a '$337,700' error as quoted and reported in the Ararat Advertiser on May 30 2013, or a '$335,000' error as claimed by Mr Hucker in his letter to the Editor of the Ararat Advertiser on June 21 2013 then Mr Hucker has not taken into account the reduction in last year's budget that proposed a seven per cent increase but Council eventually adopted a six per cent rate increase.

"Apart from the false and outrageous allegations made by Mr Hucker on the night, his submission purported to address fairness and equity, and by his own suggestion he would transfer an even greater proportion of the rates burden onto urban pensioners, to the benefit of people like himself. Mr Hucker needs to very carefully look at his own arguments, and consider them in light of the far higher rating differentials in other rural areas, and from the wider community perspective, rather than through purely his own perspective."

The draft Budget, Rating Strategy and Council Plan will be adopted at Council's meeting tonight.

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