Federal budget and council rate increases spell double trouble for Bega Valley Shire residents

Lucas Scarpin, council’s finance manager with the draft budget documents for Bega Valley Shire Council.
Lucas Scarpin, council’s finance manager with the draft budget documents for Bega Valley Shire Council.

A combination of a harsh federal budget and increases to Bega Valley Shire Council’s rates and water charges will see local residents under growing financial pressure as federal government and council seek to claw back more and give out less in order to balance their own budgets.

The reintroduction of indexation of the fuel tax excise, will add between 2.5¢-3¢ to petrol prices making a 50 litre tank of petrol about $1.50 dearer. However increases to fuel filters through to almost everything else including food much of which travels hundreds of kilometres to reach our stores.

Closer to home council has agreed to the continuation of the three-year special rate variation program approved by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) last year.

The three-year plan for Bega Valley Shire Council comprised a new 2 per cent one-off permanent increase above the rate peg in 2013-14. This was for the renewal of collector roads.

This year (2014-15) will see the retention of the expiring sports levy as a 2.5 per cent one-off permanent increase above the approved rate peg of 2.3 per cent.

In 2015-16 council has approval for a new 2 per cent one-off permanent increase above rate pegging for infrastructure renewal for public domain areas and buildings.

However special variations in excess of one year have a standard 3 per cent rate peg applied to them which will be applied to general rates in 2014-15.

The rate peg for 2014-15 was 2.3 per cent and councillors could have voted to apply the actual rate peg rather than the standard 3 per cent used for special variations.

But council’s finance manager Lucas Scarpin said that had they done so council would have asked councillors what part of the budget they wanted to cut in order to meet the shortfall as the budget had been prepared using a standard 3 per cent increase.

The result for 2014-15 will be an additional yield of $1.09 million including the special variation of $507,000 for recreational assets.

Mr Scarpin said: “On the average land value of about $140,000 it’s about $1.20 a week increase.”

One of the issues that influenced the council budget is the estimated award increases for council employees of 3 per cent costing $635,000. This percentage is unlikely to be reflected in many other local pay packets making the increases from federal and local government all the more painful for most people.

If councillors follow the same pattern in 2015-16 rates will rise by 5 per cent to include the 3 per cent standard rate peg (irrespective of what the actual rate peg figure may be) and a new 2 per cent increase.

Mr Scarpin said he was confident that council could remain financially healthy for at least the next 10 years if not 20 years given the work that had taken place on the budget.

Mr Scarpin said ratepayers would also see an average increase of 2.3 per cent on water, sewer and waste charges. “Other fees and charges will generally go up by 5 per cent because they don’t pay their way,” he said.

“Special variations are about keeping what we’ve got at a good standard,” Mr Scarpin said.

One of the critical aspects of the long-term budget, has been been the consideration of asset renewals and upgrades, particularly in respect of roads and bridges.

The asset backlog of some $70 million was highlighted in the Review Today report conducted by Prof Percy Allen and presented to council in 2011. In 2012-13 council was spending about $6 million on maintaining its assets but Mr Scarpin said that council needed to spend double that for the next 20 years just to maintain the assets at the existing level.

In fact this coming financial year it plans to spend $26.8 million on its assets including roads and bridges.

“All rates dollars are put back into community infrastructure. This is a significant improvement on the past,” Mr Scarpin said but explained that the money allowed for infrastructure work to return assets to their original new state not to make them better.

But general manager, Leanne Barnes warned that council needed to have some frank discussions with the community particularly with respect to recreational facilities. “We need to look at the whole provision of pools and halls and there’s an expectation about quality and servicing. We can’t have change without charging. Are people willing to have a lower level of service to have the spread across the shire. We all want everything but it’s not possible. These are going to be difficult conversations,” she said.

Mrs Barnes said that council would be spending $4.7 million on sporting and recreational assets and Mr Scarpin added: “We’re flat out paying for and keeping what we’ve got. This is not about building new or building upgraded infrastructure.”

For the longer term there are water and sewer issues to be faced. Mr Scarpin believes that the state government will eventually mandate the installation of filtration on water services. “We can fund filtration 20 years down the track but if the state government wants it any sooner then we need to have a conversation about how we are going to pay for it,” he said.

There is also the issue of sewer outfall at Merimbula, and although the ocean outfall is the preferred solution, council can only afford dunal exfiltration, something that is fraught with a number of problems including ecological and heritage issues.

However in another five years’ time the debt incurred by sewering the villages, for which each resident pays over $1000 a year, will have been paid. Council’s current thinking is to maintain the levy and use it to help fund the next round of water and sewer works.

The Draft Budget is on public exhibition along with the 2014/15 Draft Fees and Charges and the 2014/15 Draft Operational Plan which outlines the strategic activities to be undertaken in the coming year. Council’s budget documents and plans are available online at www.begavalley.nsw.gov.au where comments can be left online. The documents can also be viewed at local libraries.