TIME TO SHOW US THE MONEY

Unrest in busi­ness com­mu­nity over cy­clone grants

Whitsunday Times - - FRONT PAGE - Sharon Small­wood sharon.small­wood@ whit­sun­day­times.com.au

IF YOU are in busi­ness in the Whit­sun­days and have been knocked back for a cy­clone grant or loan, or are find­ing it too hard to ap­ply, you are not alone and should not give up.

This is the mes­sage from the Whit­sun­day Coast Cham­ber of Com­merce whose ex­ec­u­tive have been fol­low­ing up on grow­ing unrest within the busi­ness com­mu­nity over the past week.

Kevin Collins ap­plied for the $5000 cy­clone recovery grant af­ter he was “en­cour­aged to”, hav­ing suf­fered dam­age to stock and his premises at Fish D’Vine, D’Vine Ca­ter­ing and the Airlie Beach Rum Bar.

Mr Collins, who em­ploys 50 staff in­clud­ing a full-time ac­coun­tant ca­pa­ble of han­dling the forms, said he was sur­prised to be asked for ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion in­clud­ing the com­pany and di­rec­tors’ tax re­turns.

Even af­ter jump­ing through these hoops, and on a claim Mr Collins started two weeks af­ter Cy­clone Deb­bie hit, the out­come is “still un­der con­sid­er­a­tion”.

Terry Lawn mean­while wanted to ap­ply for the 1.16% low in­ter­est loan be­ing of­fered to busi­nesses in need, for his Air­l­ly­wood fash­ion store in the Airlie Beach CBD.

“But then it went on to ask for fore­casts by the month go­ing for­ward, which we had no idea of,” he said.

“How do we know what’s go­ing to hap­pen now in Airlie Beach? Busi­nesses are clos­ing left, right and cen­tre.”

Mr Lawn called his rep­utable ac­coun­tant for help – an ac­coun­tant al­ready in the process of han­dling a loan ap­pli­ca­tion for an­other client but find­ing it dif­fi­cult.

“And at that point I gave up be­cause if they were hav­ing trou­ble as ac­coun­tants, what hope did I have,” Mr Lawn said.

Prop­erty de­vel­oper and mort­gage bro­ker Terry Archer is an­other ex­am­ple of a Whit­sun­day busi­ness­man hit­ting a stum­bling block.

Mr Archer said he lodged an ap­pli­ca­tion for a grant to cover le­git­i­mate cy­clone dam­age to his de­vel­op­ment on Botan­ica Es­tate, only to be told his en­ter­prise didn’t qual­ify as a small busi­ness be­cause it didn’t em­ploy “full-time equiv­a­lent” peo­ple and wasn’t his pri­mary source of in­come.

All three men were at an in­for­ma­tion night held in Proser­pine shortly af­ter the cy­clone hit, where ap­pli­ca­tions for the $5000 grant were de­scribed as rel­a­tively sim­ple, with loss of power given as an ex­am­ple of a di­rect im­pact.

But this week, Queens­land Ru­ral Ad­just­ment Au­thor­ity (QRAA) man­ager for cus­tomer re­la­tions, Craig Turner, told the Whit­sun­day Times the grants were for up to $25,000 with $5000 as a first pay­ment.

“And one thing is for cer­tain, we are seek­ing proof of the im­pact of the dam­age, so yes, for that ini­tial $5000 we may ask for photos… (and) for quotes for re­pairs,” he said.

“It’s not carte blanche that just be­cause some­one is in the Whit­sun­days that guar­an­tees that grant.”

Mr Turner said the guide­lines were very clear, in that any busi­ness suf­fer­ing di­rect dam­age from the cy­clone was en­cour­aged to ap­ply.

“But loss of power is not deemed to be di­rect dam­age,” he said.

“Hav­ing said that, we’ve cer­tainly been able to as­sist busi­nesses with per­ish­able stock that have lost that stock, with re­plen­ish­ing it for the im­me­di­ate re­sump­tion of busi­ness.”

As for the com­plex­ity of the ap­pli­ca­tion pro­cesses, Mr Turner said they had been “honed over years” and were based on the QRAA’s day to day work of lend­ing to pri­mary pro­duc­ers, with $120 mil­lion in successful loans over the past year alone.

But Mr Archer said he felt like this had all been a

“con-job”.

“And when I ad­vised the clerk from QRAA that I would be tak­ing my con­cerns to my lo­cal State and Fed­eral Mem­ber, he smugly replied that it was them that set the guide­lines,” he said.

Fed­eral Mem­ber for Daw­son George Chris­tensen said there had to be strict guide­lines “be­cause it’s es­sen­tially free money”.

“And you’ve got to have some sort of level of scru­tiny around it oth­er­wise peo­ple rort the sys­tem… but it sounds like there is some poor in­ter­pre­ta­tion and lack of con­sis­tency in what peo­ple are be­ing told, and if that is the case and it is hap­pen­ing re­peat­edly that’s a sub­stan­tial prob­lem that needs to be ad­dressed,” he said.

Mr Collins mean­while went so far as to say he’d had a “one-on-one” con­ver­sa­tion with a QRAA rep­re­sen­ta­tive who told him, “they’ve ac­tu­ally been in­structed to make it dif­fi­cult”.

“He did say QRAA grants had been abused in the past – and that’s fraud. Fair enough, tell us that in the first place, that would have been ac­cepted and a bet­ter mes­sage for busi­nesses,” Mr Collins said.

“My beef is the politi­cians came up here beefed up their chests, said ‘Fill out the pa­per­work and it’ll get paid’, which seemed too good to be true – and it was,” he said.

“It was a PR stunt. It was just cyn­i­cal pol­i­tics.”

Mr Turner how­ever said far from seek­ing to put im­ped­i­ments in place, QRAA staff had been go­ing out of their way to help.

He said as of last Fri­day, in the Whit­sun­days alone, 157 busi­nesses had been ap­proved for cy­clone grants to­talling $750, 130.68, with a fur­ther 75 pri­mary pro­duc­ers ap­proved for grants to­talling $483,000 and 13 not for profit or­gan­i­sa­tions ap­proved for grants to­talling $78,000.

Mr Turner said there were still 90 ap­pli­ca­tions to be as­sessed, with more re­ceived ev­ery day and only 50 deemed in­el­i­gi­ble to date.

“But in real terms the ma­jor­ity of busi­nesses we’ve dealt with have been successful and are re­cov­er­ing,” he said.

None­the­less Whit­sun­day Coast Cham­ber of Com­merce Pres­i­dent Al­lan Milostic said across the busi­nesses he had spo­ken to it seemed like a “bu­reau­cratic web”.

Mr Milostic said there were two rea­sons for Whit­sun­day busi­ness­peo­ple to get in touch with the cham­ber now, whether they were mem­bers or not.

“One is we might be able to progress claims rather than ac­cept a ‘no’, but se­condly we’re also gath­er­ing data so we can feed that in­for­ma­tion back (to coun­cil),” he said.

To con­tact the cham­ber email info@ air­liebeachcham­ber.com.au or call Al­lan Milostic on 0419 343 345.

To con­tact the QRAA di­rect, free call 1800 623 946 from 8am-5pm, Mon­day to Fri­day.

It was a PR stunt.

— Kevin Collins

PHOTO: INGE HANSEN

CON­CERNED: Whit­sun­day Coast Cham­ber of Com­merce sec­re­tary Judy Porter, pres­i­dent Al­lan Milostic and vice pres­i­dent Mark Beale.

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