Citizens jury has its say
Ararat district farmers might pay 45 percent of a general residential property rate if a new ‘citizens jury’ recommendation withstands further deliberation and assessment to win an Ararat Rural City Council tick of approval.
The rate split might also include Ararat commercial and industrial ratepayers paying 125 percent, while a 10 percent municipal charge, including a rebate for pensioners, might apply across the municipality.
The recommendation also includes a reclassification of lifestyle or hobby farms as residential properties.
A new-concept 25-member citizens jury, made up of a broad cross-section of Ararat district residents, voted for the recommendation after spending Saturday and Sunday deliberating over four alternative rating plans.
The recommendations are unofficial, with the Ararat council committed to responding to a Rating Strategy Advisory Group that presented the plans to the jury before making public comment.
But The Weekly Advertiser is confident the jury overwhelmingly voted for ‘option four’ of the rating plans, ‘with minor changes’.
Ararat’s current differential rating system includes 55 percent for farming properties, 120 percent industrial and 160 percent commercial and an overall municipal charge of about five percent.
Work to do
Ararat council chief executive Allan Bawden said councillors had been briefed on advisory group and jury deliberations and during the next few weeks would consider all recommendations, information and data.
“There are obviously a lot of details to go through and a need for more modelling on the ideas that came forward during the process,” he said.
“New property valuations are due at the end of April, which obviously weren’t available to the jury, and that has the potential to influence the rating strategy – not the amount of rates, but how they are distributed – so there is a bit of work still to do.
“The hope is that by the May council meeting the council will be in a position to release a draft rating strategy for public comment.”
The advisory process, which started in December, was in response to significant upheaval last year when a council decision to abandon a differential rating system prompted State Government intervention.
The advisory group and jury process represented a landmark way for the council to engage with Ararat community on major projects affecting the municipality, such as rating plans.
Mr Bawden, who attended jury deliberations to answer questions, asked jurors to consider the report and answer ‘which rating option from the Rating Strategy Advisory Group is the most fair and equitable for Ararat?’
The process also asked jurors whether they could ‘draw on different aspects of each to reach a model which earned greater support?’
Mr Bawden said while jurors had a specific scope to work to during the weekend, the topic of the council’s budget was at front of mind for many.
He said a general concern expressed by members of the group was that the overall rate burden for all ratepayers was too high.
“Jury members said there had been challenges arriving at their decisions due to some unknowns going forward,” he said.
“These include future expected valuations and possible changes to the Local Government Act.”
Jury member Scott Norman said the jury wanted the council to undertake ‘an external audit into fiscal health to try and extract cost savings and increase efficiencies of operations’.
“This is with a view to lowering the overall rates burden, to more evenly distribute the rates,” he said.
Jury deliberations ended with a presentation to Ararat councillors.
Deputy mayor Cr Gwenda Allgood said she admired the people who had volunteered to be part of the process.
“It’s a very big task and a big learning curve,” she said.
She said she was also proud to see all six councillors in attendance to hear feedback in person.
The make-up of the jury involved a random selection of people from across the municipality who had registered an interest to participate.
Independent, non-partisan research and development organisation newdemocracy Foundation, working with government in community engagement, designed and helped with the process.
Independent facilitators Annie Bolithio and Chad Foulkes, with economist Trevor Koops and council officers oversaw the weekend event.
The council will make a final report and provide a formal response to the public as part of the Rating Strategy, Budget and Council Plan feedback period.