Rates weigh on farmers
Mackay cane growers cop hefty bill
CANE farming is not the highly lucrative endeavour it once was.
This is a key fact councillor Laurence Bonaventura wants people to understand after Mackay Regional Council went into budget meltdown on June 27 and is now preparing to re-deliberate its budget.
The entirety of the council’s 2018–19 budget, after months of development, was voted down by six of 10 councillors over a single item – banded rating categories for rural landowners.
The move would have given rural landowners the same land valuation-based banding as offered by landowners in urban residential areas.
The system delivers reduced general rates to higher-value properties to create a more equitable distribution of cost load among ratepayers.
Cr Bonaventura said the quashing of the budget had been “very disappointing”, especially given that the budget was moving to surplus and long-term forecasts had been done on the costs of the new banded approach for rural producers, showing that it was something the council could carry into the next 10 years.
Cane growers pay 3.26 cents in the dollar, roughly the same rate businesses within Mackay’s mining-services hub Paget pay, at 3.44 cents in the dollar.
While a business, farms are also people’s homes.
Cr Bonaventura advised the average rates bill for a Mackay region cane farmer with a property value of $575,000 sat at a whopping $19,068, in contrast to a residential property of the same value at an annual average of $5155.
Properties under “Other Rural” category pay at a 1.50 rate, equivalent to that paid on a multi-unit residential investment property.
Under the proposed new approach, actual rates would not have shifted greatly but banding around property values to which they applied would have.
He said the larger property sizes demanded to remain viable in the modern economy, producing 15,000 tonnes of cane annually further exacerbated the issue, as did reduced services readily available to rural ratepayers.
He said the current system harked back to a different, more prosperous time for the district’s cane growers.
“You go back quite a few years and the cane farmer was king, he was the lifeblood of the district,” he said.
“He was the one who bought the new car every couple of years, who spent money in the machinery shops, had a great deal of input within the community as far as spending.
“For every dollar that the farmer spent, every dollar the farmer earned did the rounds of the town probably three or four times in the way that it assisted the town and they had a lot of labour that used to work for the farms.
“It was very profitable if you could own a farm going back 40-50 years.
“Things have changed and we are at a point now where farming isn’t the profitable business it used to be.
“For many, it’s almost subsistence farming and they keep doing it for the lifestyle.”
Evidence of this lay in the way that for most farming families there is a necessity for cane-growing income to be supplemented by work elsewhere and often by all adults in the family.
Cr Bonaventura’s family has owned a smaller cane property in the Habana area of Mackay since the 1930s and cited the generational differences for his family by way of example.
“In my father’s day, he was able to make a full-time living off the farm, buy a new car every four years and he didn’t work in the off-season,” he said.
“By the time I became a farmer, you had to work all year on the farm and in what we used to call the ‘slack season’ I had to find alternate income to make ends meet – and that got to the point where I had to start an earthmoving business to subsidise the farming income. So things have changed. What hasn’t changed is a rating system that treats farming as quite profitable. We just want to bring the system into something that is a little more fair and equitable.”
It is expected the budget will be re-deliberated on July 18, ahead of the July 31 deadline for Queensland councils to ratify budgets.
While the rural ratings bands, which would have reduced income to the council budget by $440,000 annually, may be scrapped, the $500,000 cost of scrapping non-principal place of residence (investment housing) rating categories may be retained. A full rates review is another potential outcome.
“I think it’s a sad day for farmers, I think we have to look at ways to improve things for them,” Cr Bonaventura said.
“When I go out and talk to people and they say, ‘Oh, my rates are too high,’ I can say, ‘Well, look at what you get – you get a lovely Bluewater Lagoon, you get the MECC entertainment centre, parks, beaches, pools.’ Now I struggle to use those same terminologies 70 or 80km from the city centre, talking to farmers that are paying $15,000–$20,000 in their rates, trying to explain to them what they are getting for their rates apart from a gravel road and a wheelie bin service.”
FAIR GO: Councillor Laurence Bonaventura would like to see improved rates equity for Mackay region farmers. PHOTO: FILE