Rate rises must not add to State’s woes

The West Australian - - OPINION - TONY KRSTICEVIC Tony Krsticevic is the shadow min­is­ter for lo­cal gov­ern­ment

No level of gov­ern­ment has more con­tact with West Aus­tralians than our lo­cal coun­cils. Con­sid­er­ing the cities, towns and shires con­trol more than $40 bil­lion in pub­lic as­sets, those in­volved in lo­cal gov­ern­ment should have a good grasp of the mood of their com­mu­ni­ties.

Af­ter all, they need us to fund 137 coun­cils.

They charge ratepay­ers more than $2.3 bil­lion a year to run the pro­grams that ser­vice our re­gions.

If you’re deal­ing with fam­i­lies across the State you’ll be acutely aware many are hurt­ing.

Cost of liv­ing in­creases over three McGowan Gov­ern­ment Bud­gets, fall­ing house prices and re­sult­ing mort­gage stress, and high un­em­ploy­ment are hav­ing de­mor­al­is­ing im­pacts on too many West Aus­tralians.

So, be­cause our lo­cal gov­ern­ments are in tune with their ratepay­ers, they should be con­sid­er­ing only very mod­est in­creases to the an­nual rates no­tices that will soon lob in let­ter­boxes through­out WA.

Only pru­dent de­ci­sions by coun­cils on their rates for the next fis­cal year will pre­vent even more fi­nan­cial pain for those al­ready strug­gling un­der the weight of util­ity and trans­port cost in­creases.

In­deed, any rate hikes above the con­sumer price in­dex would be yet an­other set­back for West Aus­tralians bat­tling to make ends meet.

How­ever, lo­cal gov­ern­ments have vir­tu­ally a free rein in set­ting bud­gets and rates.

As a re­sult, in re­cent years there have been sharp rises in charges to ratepay­ers.

Last year, the City of Rock­ing­ham lifted rates 3.6 per cent, more than 31⁄2 times Perth’s then CPI of one per cent.

There is grow­ing con­cern with the com­mu­nity about the con­stantly in­creas­ing size of many coun­cils.

While there are plenty of coun­cil chief ex­ec­u­tives who say their ev­er­grow­ing work­forces need to be paid by higher rates col­lec­tions, it is time for more fi­nan­cial dis­cre­tion from those whose role is to serve, not dic­tate.

Take the City of Rock­ing­ham, in the Premier’s elec­torate, and its fig­ures on the MyCoun­cil in­for­ma­tion por­tal.

Be­tween 2013-14 and 2017-18, the coun­cil’s rev­enue went up $30 mil­lion, from $123 mil­lion to $153 mil­lion.

Over the same five years, its work­force went from 462 full-time equiv­a­lents to 555.

That is a 20 per cent in­crease. In 2016-17, the av­er­age res­i­den­tial rates bill in Rock­ing­ham was $1577.97.

Two years later it was $1633.95 — a rise just shy of $66.

Com­pound­ing the prob­lem is the $868 ex­tra in house­hold fees and charges im­posed by the Gov­ern­ment since the 2017 State elec­tion.

Add in the up­wards move­ment in lo­cal gov­ern­ment rates and most fam­i­lies have had to find close to $950 to pay for key ser­vices. In­creas­ing coun­cil rates pay­ments have been a wor­ry­ing is­sue in the com­mu­nity for some time.

Last year, we learnt home­own­ers owed more than $60 mil­lion in un­paid rates. There was $4.8 mil­lion ow­ing to the City of Rock­ing­ham.

To re­claim the un­paid rates, some coun­cils had seized prop­er­ties, forc­ing out res­i­dents be­fore sell­ing the premises and land to re­cover out­stand­ing debts.

Now the strug­gle in the sub­urbs and towns has got even tougher.

Me­dian house prices have fallen 8.8 per cent over the past year to $436,000 (a level not ex­pe­ri­enced since April 2006), al­most 15,000 WA mort­gage hold­ers are trapped in a home worth less than their loans, util­ity dis­con­nec­tions have dou­bled to nearly 20,000 and the State’s un­em­ploy­ment rate is 6.1 per cent, the sec­ond high­est in the coun­try and far worse than NSW (4.3 per cent) and Vic­to­ria (4.8 per cent).

Data re­lease by the Aus­tralian Bureau of Statis­tics this month shows WA’s do­mes­tic economy is in re­ces­sion and has gone back­ward for five quar­ters un­der the McGowan Gov­ern­ment.

All those fig­ures in­di­cate the dire plight for many West Aus­tralians.

Coun­cils ex­ist to serve the peo­ple. So when it comes to set­ting rates for 2019-20, coun­cil­lors need to of­fer some help to the com­mu­nity.

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