Ararat Rural City Council was accused of trying to abolish differential rates without evidence or consultation at a state government inquiry on Wednesday.
The Commission of Inquiry into Ararat Rural City Council held a public hearing at Ararat’s Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre.
Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins appointed commissioners late last month to investigate the council’s proposal to remove rates discounts for farmers while lowering rates for residential, commercial and industrial properties.
The public hearing attracted mainly farmers, who criticised the proposal that would see their rates increase by 45 per cent.
A Westmere farmer told the inquiry he made no profit last financial year and had applied for a drought concessional loan.
“I’ve got no income. I’ve got $300 in the bank. We can’t pay any more in rates,” he said.
Ararat councillors deferred a vote on adopting the rating strategy until after the inquiry hands down its first report on August 1.
Eversley small business owner Nancy Panter told the inquiry she wanted to start a vineyard within Ararat Rural City but would now look elsewhere.
Ms Panter said she was dissatisfied with the council’s governance.
“What will this do as an economic driver for our community? What will this do as a social driver?” she said.
“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 calculated that large businesses like Woolworths would save $60,000 in rates under the proposal.
“I am confident that our region will grow, but I am no longer confident in our council,” she said.
Former Ararat Mayor Fay Hull testified and told the inquiry she could see the reasoning behind reducing the farmers’ discount
She also harshly criticised meeting procedures and governance, accusing councillors of “dereliction of duty” for appearing to have not sought advice from senior staff.
Ms Hull said there was a divide between farm and town ratepayers due to differential rates.
“In the intervening years after amalgamation, the farming sector suffered from a terrible drought. The sector was in great difficulty,” she said.
“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.”
Ms Hull said there had been little effort to return farm rates to normal once drought conditions ended.
“I am sympathetic to both sides,” she said.
“If you look at Ararat there is an ageing population. We have a lot of people at or on minimum wage.”
Ms Hull said one building owner has not been able to put up leases as business tenants could not afford it.