Ararat Advertiser blog for state government commission of inquiry into Ararat Rural City rating strategy

Public has their say during inquiry move to abolish differential rates in Ararat Rural City.

Public has their say during inquiry move to abolish differential rates in Ararat Rural City.

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Prior coverage:

6.35pm

Looks like that’s it for public hearings. There was one additional private hearing but no more in public.

Thanks for reading along.

5.38pm

We’re back in the Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre Great Hall and hoping that a few more people show up to testify.

Hopefully we get to hear from a town resident or business owner.

3.21pm 

Hearing adjourned. The live blog will return at 5.30pm. 

3.20pm

Allan Wohelrs, a farmer from Ararat, has taken the stand.

“My rates are going to go up by $3000. At my age I want to retire but the farm size is not enough to support two families. My son is on the farm and doesn’t want to work of the farm. I’ve been working to buy the farm,” he said.

“I shouldn’t have taken on farming. I should have gotten a job somewhere else. It’s too hard.”

Mr Wohlers said it now took weeks to get a non-answer out of Ararat Rural City Council.

“Most people would say the same story,” he said.   

3.10pm

Alexander Elliot, a wool and crop farmer from Stavley, has taken the stand. He says he came back from overseas to find letters indicating he would have a 50 per cent rates increase worth $4000.

“I wish to give my strong objection. I am astounded that local government politicians would offer a 50 per cent rate increase to some residents and a discount to others,” he said.

“It creates division.” 

He said he regrets voting to join Ararat Rural City from Mount Rouse Shire during amalgamation.

“The road we are on has been graded once in five years by Ararat Rural City. What services do I get for my rates? I have no rubbish collection, I have no roads maintenance, I rarely come to the city of Ararat; sometimes I get petrol here.” 

Mr Elliot joked about succession from Ararat Rural City in favour of joining Southern Grampians Shire. 

3.07pm

After an impromptu private hearing granted for a young family, the public hearing has now resumed. 

2:12pm

There has been a longer than expected adjournment. The hearing will resume at 2:30pm unless there are no people in attendance who wish to testify. 

12:28pm

The hearing has adjourned until 1.15pm

12:24pm

Westmere farmer Grant Hudson, age 62, has given detailed information about his financial situation.

He said he had worked in transport for 42 years, been a shearer but given that away due to health problems.

Mr Hudson said he was looking after a farm but he was left with 360 acres and it’s not enough to make a living.

“I’m sticking with it mainly because it’s my uncle’s property and he passed away in 2007,” he said.

“Since then it has been nothing but drought.

“I’ve seen it all.”

He has three sons aged in their 30s, with one son helping out when he isn’t working as a logger.

He said the departure of dairy farmers means he can’t even give his hay away.

He said he couldn't pay his rates for four years and he has had meetings with Ararat Rural City and said he was entitled to claim hardship.

He said his claim was denied and the case was sent to Melbourne Magistrates Court without his knowledge and was charged interest for four years and sent a demand for $36,000.

“I’m semi-retired but I’m losing all my assets,” he said. 

He said he had applied for a drought concessional loan from the federal government.

“I’ve got no income. I’ve got $300 in the bank. We can’t pay any more in rates,” he said.

“The roads are shocking where we are. The services are not right.”

12:03pm

The hearing has taken a short break.

11:58am

Nancy Panter, of Eversley, new mum and small business owner and East Grampians Health Services board member, has taken the stand.

She has a degree in journalism and her partner is a winemaker.

“The reason I am here today is to express my dissatisfaction about the governance,” she said.

“When I heard about the outcome of the meeting, I asked ‘what is the strategy here?’

“What will this do as an economic driver for our community? What will this do as a social driver?”

“I have asked for documents to explain it. I now have no faith in the council. How are we to grow with council making these decisions apparently on a whim?”

Ms Panter said she wanted to start a vineyard but she would have to look elsewhere because the she was not confident the council would represent the community in its decisions.

Ms Panter said she calculated that large businesses like Woolworths would save $60,000 in rates under the proposal, which they would put towards their bottom line.

Ms Panter said farmers would have less to spend in town.  

“In my opinion, it has been highly irresponsible for our elected representatives to put forward such a proposal without a detailed rationale,” she said.

“I am confident that our region will grow, but I am no longer confident in our council.”   

11:40am

Former Ararat Mayor Fay Hull has taken the stand.

She said she had a degree in Local Government Management and Professional Accounting and has worked in local government in NSW and Victoria.

Ms Hull said she had tried to get a private hearing but it clashed with her appointments.

“To my knowledge, the last time there was a defensible position on what the differential rates was at the time of amalgamation.” 

Ms Hull said there was a divide between farm and town ratepayers with the differential rates,

“In the intervening years the farming sector suffered form a terrible drought. The sector was in great difficulty. The VFF approached council and there was a determination to reduce the rates for farmers from 70 per cent to 52.5, or in that vicinity,” she said.

“At the time there was considerable outcry in the community. I was one of several former mayors who protested as it had been done without concern for the urban sector.

“I think that in 2010 a division was created that remains since.”

Ms Hull said there had been little effort to return farm rates to normal once drought conditions ended.

Ms Hull said it was impossible for councillors to determine what the differential rates should be and there should be an algorithm that considered farm incomes and socioeconomic status.

“I am sympathetic to both sides,” she said.

“I am extremely disappointed in the governance. There is no voice for the urban sector. If you look at Ararat there is an ageing population. We have a lot of people at or on minimum wage. There are issues on both sides.”

Ms Hull said one building owner has not been able to put up leases as businesses would not be able to afford it.

Ms Hull said another farmer had made arrangements to share a farm before the differential rates plan was put forward.

Ms Hull said she listened to the June 27 council  meeting via recordings posted by Ararat Rural City on the internet.

“I was appalled,” she said.

Ms Hull said the move to debate such a significant motion with an apparent lack of briefings from senior staff was a “dereliction of duty”.

“Listening to the meeting, I heard the stress in the Mayor’s voice as he tried to guide a particular Councillor,” she said.

11:32am

Ruth Helen Gellet from Willaura has taken the stand. She has a family farm. 

Mrs Gellet has given her impressions of council debate over the motion to abolish differential rates.

“From a governance point of view, it left a lot to be desired,” she said.

Mrs Gellet said it was strange that Cr David Pettman was largely silent 

“There seems to be a total lack of appropriate consultation. The word ‘farmer’ keeps being thrown around like a generic term,” she said.

Mrs Gellet said there was a wide range of farmers with different circumstances

“Farmers are not all the same, just like people in Ararat or Lake Bolac are not all the same. That seems to not have come through,” she said.

Mrs Gellet said it was not farmers’ fault that there are a lot of pensioners in Ararat Rural City who struggled with rates.

“Of course pensioners need help, but I feel it is an unfair tying together of those two things,” she said. 

11:16am

Heather Fleming, a farmer from Willaura, says “soldier settlements won’t cut it anymore” and farms have to get larger and larger to stay in business.

She says it will be impossible to pass on increased rates costs to wholesalers and cutting back on spending.

Mrs Fleming said farmers were often “working poor” during tough years and there would be an impact on depression and stress rates from increased rates.

She said she was concerned about the effect on population as “everything in our town runs on volunteers”.

“I understand that councils are stuck with this land tax. It is an antiquated system that does not account for incomes,” she said.   

11:06am

Heather Fleming, a farmer from Willaura is first to give public testimony. She says she's a widow and had extensive involvement in the Willaura Community Development group.

Mrs Fleming said she was concerned about the governance standards around the decision. She said councillors with decades of experience had struggled with the various motions around the draft plan.

She said there had not been enough community consultation on the technical aspects of the proposal.

She has criticised Cr Gwenda Allgood’s call for an apology from the authors of a submission about Ararat businesses.

Mrs Fleming said Cr Allgood misinterpreted the submission as directing threats at businesses in town.   

11:01am

The State Government Commission of Inquiry into the Ararat Rural City Council proposed rating strategy has started at Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre’s Great Hall in Ararat.

Ararat Rural City has proposed to abolish differential rates, increasing the amount paid by farmers but giving a discount to residential, commercial and industrial properties.

Ararat Rural City councillors voted late last month to defer their decision on adopting the proposal.

The hearing will run from 11am to 1.30pm then 2.30pm until 7pm on Wednesday.

Commission of Inquiry Fran O’Brien QC has outlined the terms of reference and reminded attendees that they can give testimony under oath under the powers of the inquiry for the benefit of its final report.

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