ARARAT - A visit from Victorian Farmers Federation president, Peter Tuohey has strengthened the resolve of Ararat Rural City's rural ratepayers to fight what they believe is an unfair rating system.
About 120 people attended the dinner meeting at Chalambar Golf Club to learn more about the VFF's campaign for fairer rates for rural residents.
Secretary of the Ararat/Tatyoon branch of the VFF, Bruce McKay said many local farmers were angered by what they perceived to be a backflip from Ararat Rural City Council.
In May 2010 council adopted a Differential Rating Strategy which saw the introduction of a Farm Differential Rate to be progressively
reduced over three years and a municipal charge to be progressively increased over the same period of time.
In July, Ararat Rural City farmers accused council of reneging on this 2010 motion which would have seen the Farm Differential Rate reduced to 45 percent of the general rate for the 2012/2013 year. Council chose to retain the 2011/2012 Farm Differential of 0.525 per cent, which had been reduced from .60 per cent in the 2010/2011 year.
Mr McKay said the decision had upset many of the municipality's rural ratepayers.
"A lot of people attended the meeting because they feel as if they've been shafted," he said.
"We had a terrific turn out. It just goes to show how strongly people feel about it. It wasn't just locals, there was a carload from Horsham that came down. The rates are very unfair up there too. The issue is a lot wider than the Ararat area."
Mr Tuohey said the VFF was working hand in hand with farmers across Victoria to address the disparities between rural and regional municipal council rates.
He believes farmers do not reap the benefits for the percentage of the rates they pay.
"For example if a farmer pays $8,000 to $20,000 in rates and a business in town pays a third of that, what extra value does the farmer get for the increase in rates?" he asked.
"The main response from councils is that farmers get their roads graded, but that's not a very good argument because everyone uses the roads, not just farmers."
Mr McKay said it was vital to note all businesses in Ararat relied on rural roads.
"We need to emphasise the fact it's not just farmers who use those roads," he said.
"Insurance agents use the roads to get out to do their claims, mail needs to be delivered, every worker at the Ararat Abbatoirs relies on rural roads or they wouldn't have a job.
If you haven't got a rural road network the town won't survive, but if you take away the City of Ararat the country would still survive, because we'd just go to Ballarat or something," he said.
Mr Tuohey said councils had historically believed farmers could afford to pay high rates, however due to population shifts there were less farmers on the land.
He called on farmers to lobby the Federal Government to look at the funding model.
"The model they use doesn't work for rural shires. It works for those on the edge of the metropolitan area where there are large populations," Mr Tuohey said.
"We also encouraged farmers to push the State Government to pursue a review into the rating system.
"Mr Tuohey said the VFF was conducting a letter writing campaign to Victorian Members of Parliament requesting a change to the municipal rating system. He told those present at the meeting they should write to the Minister for Local Government, Jeanette Powell, Premier Ted Baillieu and Minister for Agriculture, Peter Walsh calling for an inquiry into the rating system in rural and regional Victoria.
Mr Tuohey said there was plenty of interaction at the dinner.
"There were a couple of speakers early and it was all very quiet, but people livened up when we started talking about the rating issue," he said.
"There were a lot of questions and a lot of people were very happy we were there and that we were discussing these issues."
Mr Tuohey said he also took the opportunity to urge farmers to run for council."I know it's hard because farming takes up a lot of time, but there was some interest there," he said.
Mr Tuohey said the purpose of the meeting was not about 'bashing council', but about trying to generate an understanding of the difficulties farmers were facing and the huge amount of rates farmers pay in relation to businesses and residents.
Mr McKay said Ararat Rural City was one of the higher rated rural cities in Victoria."Farmers on average pay $8,500, but a lot of farmers are paying up to $30,000," he said.
"Some people have land within two municipalities and are paying twice the amount per acre in Ararat than they are in the other. Something is just not right."
Mr McKay said Mr Tuohey gave rural ratepayers plenty of food for thought and that the Ararat/Tatyoon branch of the VFF would hold a meeting soon to discuss how the members should move forward.
"I know certain people are thinking about witholding rates," he said.
"Some of us will look at writing letters, but we'll all go away and have a think about what was discussed.
"We've got to get a solution to the problem. There's got to be a more equitable way of funding the rural city. It just can't be funded the way it is at the moment."