TAKING A STAND: More than 80 concerned farmers staged a protest calling for a fairer rates go prior to Wednesday’s Mildura Rural City Council meeting.

By VINNIE RODI

MILDURA Rural City Council has adopted its 2018/19 Budget unchanged following an emotion-charged meeting on Wednesday.

Council’s budget had been in the news for all the wrong reasons earlier this week, with the region’s dryland farmers calling for an immediate re-think after it was revealed they would be slugged with an average rates rise of 22.87 percent next financial year.

A crowd of 80 farmers staged a peaceful process at Council’s Deakin Avenue offices prior to the vote, where they called for “a fair rates go.” Around 50 protesters were also permitted to attend the meeting.

While hearing their concerns, Councillors adopted the unchanged budget by the narrowest of margins, five votes to four, after a long and at times passionate debate.

Crs Max Thorburn, Anthony Cirillo, Greg Brown and Min Poole voted against the budget for a variety of reasons.

Several Councillors both for and against the budget conceded that their current five-year rating strategy had inadvertently put a burden on the region’s rate-paying farmers, saying it needed to be heavily reviewed.

The strategy is in its final year, with Council confirming on Wednesday that it was in the process of beginning a review, and would consult heavily with all sections of the community to find a fair and balanced approach to calculating rates.

However, the extent of the burden being placed on dryland farmers is not as extreme as claimed according to several Councillors who spoke in favour of the budget.

Cr Simon Clemence said that it was “misconceptions” about the proposed 22.87 percent rate rise to dryland farmers that had caused outcry.

He said the 22.87 percent figure did not represent “a blanket rate rise for farmers”, but was instead reflective of an increase in total rates revenue to be collected from the dryland farming area.

“There are a number of large properties whose Capital Improved Value (CIV) has increased by 90 percent or more in the last 12 months,” he said. “Under our rating strategy all rates are determined taking into account CIV and the inflation rate.

“While this 22.87 percent figure represents an average rate rise across the board, the data has been obscured due to a number of properties improving in value significantly, and they have been rated accordingly.”

Cr Clemence said the debate surrounding farming rates occurred “every year,” adding that nothing had changed for the region’s farmers.

“Some farmers in this room will see their rates bill go up slightly, some will see a decrease, others won’t see a change at all,” he said. “There is no blanket 22.87 percent rate rise. I can assure you all of that.”

Cr Clemence added that he was “not a fan” of using CIV in Council’s rating strategy, saying that rates should be determined by a ratepayer’s “ability to pay.”

“However, this is the rating strategy we are committed to,” he said. “I hope when this strategy is reviewed later this year we can come up with a new plan, and do something to alleviate the pressure on our farmers.”

Cr Glenn Milne was also in favour of adopting the budget unchanged, calling for more community education around Council’s current rating strategy.

“I would encourage people concerned about their rates bill to contact the rates department and get the relevant facts about their property,” he said.

Cr Poole was the first to speak against the motion, saying that Council’s 28-day public submission phase surrounding the budget had come at an “inopportune time” for farmers.

“As a result they didn’t have time to make submissions,” she said.

Cr Poole called for Council to hold off on ratifying the budget in favour of extending the public submission period for another 28 days. However, this process would essentially mean the budget would go back to a draft stage, meaning it would take a minimum of four months to adopt a new budget, according to Council management.

The process would have also required State Government approval.

Mildura Mayor Mark Eckel, however, countered that the public had been given ample opportunity to have their say.

He said it was also important to note that Council did take into account personal hardships when it came to paying rates.

“This is there to help those who are struggling to pay,” he said.

Cr Brown was also against the motion, and officially tabled a petition signed by the 350 concerned farmers who protested prior to Wednesday night’s meeting.

He added that he could not in good conscious support a budget that punished farmers.

“Never did any of us expect CIV to increase so dramatically and have such an effect,” he said. “I look forward to reviewing our rates strategy in the coming months.”

Cr Cirillo similarly spoke against the budget, going as far as labelling the average rate rise for dryland farmers as “a wealth tax.”

“Our farmers are the victims of their own success,” he said. “While CIV is the culprit behind the rise, our rating strategy has failed to provide a fair system.

“The farming differential should be used to off-set the effect on farmers. I also believe that it is unfair that three to four percent of our population is being asked to pay 18 percent of our total rates bill.

“Without out farmers, we would have no town.”

Cr Thorburn, who returned to Council chambers for the first time in two months following an ongoing battle with cancer, was also opposed to the budget, but for different reasons.

He said that Council had not committed enough funds to ensure its Mildura Future Ready Plan could be achieved.

“We have not put enough in,” he said. “I guarantee if nothing happens in the next 12 months with Future Ready, it’s gone. We have $1million set aside to beautify Deakin Avenue, why?”

Victorian Farmers Federation president, David Jochinke, who joined protestors before Wednesday’s vote, was “disappointed by the lack of leadership shown” by Mildura Council.

“There is no excuse for any industry having to shoulder so much rates burden,” he said following the vote.

Mr Jochinke said that despite the decision, the VFF would continue to fight for a fairer rates deal across the State.

He commended the large rally turnout, and the peaceful way it was conducted.