Going rates: Budget divides councillors

Michelle Slater

Latrobe City has passed down a 0 per cent increase on rates and charges to help the community through COVID-19 as part of the 2020/21 council budget which was endorsed on Monday night.

But council also warned that some rates may either increase or decrease, depending on the evaluation of individual property values.

The 0 per cent rates increase will also mean council is unlikely to recover the foregone revenue, at a cost of approximately $13.3 million over 10 years.

The latest Latrobe City budget provides for the continued delivery of services at current levels, with an $86 million capital works program.

It also includes $10 million in new borrowings from the state government for Stage 2 of the Moe Rail Precinct Revitalisation and the Kernot Hall upgrade.

There is a $1.5 million COVID-19 Business and Community Support Package, which includes waiving permits and fees, the provision of small business grants and a community grants program extension.

The state government’s landfill levy is excluded from the overall rates and charges freeze, and will increase by 30 per cent from January 1 next year.

Latrobe City received 19 community submissions for this year’s budget, of which some items will be held over to consider for future budgets or included in operational activities.

Two councillors – Graeme Middlemiss and Sharon Gibson – voted against the budget after warning about the potential compounding effects of a rates freeze on future services delivery.

Cr Gibson said “something has to give”, if $13 million in revenue was taken out of the next 10 years, and feared this could come at the expense of staff or program cut backs.

Local governments must abide by the state government’s 2 per cent annual rates cap, which in Latrobe City would be the equivalent of an extra $28 a year on the average rated property.

Cr Middlemiss said Latrobe City was already biting into its reserves through having to pay back borrowings on large projects such as the Latrobe Performing Arts Centre and Gippsland Regional Aquatic Centre.

He said this would be coupled with a downturn from the expected exit from Yallourn towards the end of the decade.

“I don’t think this budget is a way forward – the savings for people are (the equivalent) of a hamburger and a packet of cigarettes in value – this will not set us up for the next 10 years,” Cr Middlemiss said.

“Having said that, I accept the majority budget position, but in addressing the younger councillors, I’d ask you to take a look at the gallery in deciding the 2030 budget, because the old guy at the back shouting ‘I told you so’ will be me.”

Other councillors backed the budget and cited the financial hardships that the community was battling with the pandemic.

“If you look into the eyes of our community, they don’t want another kick in the teeth,” Cr Darren Howe said.

“I know it’s only about $30, but it’s the principle. They want us to stand up for them and to give a little bit.”

Cr Dale Harriman said council was already about $8 million to $10 million down in revenue with the rates cap imposed four years ago, after having previously run at a 4 per cent annual increase.

“Council has to be agile and has to move with the times. The respect we are showing to our ratepayers is important, I think council is smart enough to do some dancing to get through this,” Cr Harriman said.