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11 November, 2020

Farmers versus council: Fighting ‘unfair’ rate hikes

A CORSORTIUM of farmer groups have joined forces in what is quickly becoming a David and Goliath battle, as they rally against Bundaberg Regional Council’s decision to significantly increase the cost of rates on farmland.

By Candyce Grew RURAL LEADER EDITOR

Five generations: Montanna, Graham, Sienna, Janette, Lee-Anne and Mitchell Clark are fighting are standing up against rates hikes of up to 235 per cent. Photo: Solana Photography.
Five generations: Montanna, Graham, Sienna, Janette, Lee-Anne and Mitchell Clark are standing up against rates hikes of up to 235 per cent. Photo: Solana Photography.

A CORSORTIUM of farmer groups have joined forces in what is quickly becoming a David and Goliath battle, as they rally against Bundaberg Regional Council’s decision to significantly increase the cost of rates on farmland.

The consortium consists of AgForce, Bundaberg Fruit & Vegetable Growers, Bundaberg Canegrowers and Canegrowers Isis and claims the council is forcing farmers off the land – due to more than 200 farmers having their rates double in price – with one farmer suffering a 235 per cent increase alone.

Bundaberg Regional Council Mayor Jack Dempsey said the region “has some unique challenges” with valuations “because property has experienced rapid gains in coastal areas and horticulture” while other sectors remain relatively stagnant.

“Valuations rose 46 per cent across the entire agricultural category. Most other ratepayers had little or no increase in their valuations,” Mr Dempsey said.

“To offset this, council either had to budget for an increased deficit (already $5.2 million) or spread the impact of higher agricultural rates across other categories.

“Councillors decided it would have been unfair on residential pensioners, mums and dads and small businesses for them to subsidise agricultural ratepayers whose wealth from holding land increased substantially.”

AgForce’s Tom Marland, who is also a grazier in the region, said Bundaberg was an agri-business driven economy.

“Despite Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey pledging to work to keep farmland rates increases at CPI (Consumer Price Index) in his 2020 pre-election campaigning, just months later farmers are reeling from rates increases up to 235 per cent,” Mr Marland said.

“That’s simply outrageous, and no one can afford that. We’re still in drought, we’re battling water security issues associated with Paradise Dam, and we’re dealing with COVID.

“Right now, this region has 17 per cent unemployment.

“I know one farming family that has seen a jump of more than $30,000 in their rates bill. That’s a lot of money to be ripped from the community spend and put into council’s coffers.”

While Bundaberg Regional Council said land valuations forced rate rises, other rural-based Queensland regional councils had adjusted their cents in the dollar to CPI.

Including Gladstone, who passed a special coronavirus motion to cap rate rises for all ratepayers.

South Burnett, North Burnett, Fraser Coast, Banana, Central Highlands, Maranoa and Western Downs Regional councils also capped their rates to CPI.

Goondiwindi Regional Council’s rates halved on 2019 with Mayor Lawrence Springborg stating “Council was extremely mindful of the impact of current circumstances - including the ongoing drought - in its preparation of the 2020-21 Budget.”

“In March, this year the Goondiwindi region saw huge changes in land valuations determined by the Queensland Government’s Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy,” Mr Springborg said.

“For example, some rural areas within our region - especially throughout the larger mixed brigalow farming and irrigated floodplains of Goondiwindi, and to the west around North Talwood - saw valuation changes ranging from zero to 80 per cent. Some commercial and industrial properties experienced valuation increase of up to 120 per cent.

“To ensure that individual ratepayers are not too adversely affected by this year’s huge fluctuations in land valuations, council is maintaining a cap of 20 per cent on the rate increase for any one property. Despite this, 441 of the 5,208 rate notices will unfortunately still include an increase of more than five per cent due to the increase in their land valuation - but 573 rate notices will see a reduction of up to 40 per cent.”

PLEA TO CEO

BULLYARD farmer Lee-Anne Clark sent a personal plea to the Chief Executive Officer of Bundaberg Regional Council Steve Johnston.

Mrs Clark wrote to Mr Johnston, speaking up not only for her family farm but for families living and working the land in Bullyard who also have been hit by the unexpected and unplanned-for huge bills.

“Like the majority of our neighbours and community, my family are farmers,” she said.

“We are honest and patriotic community members who give selflessly and rarely complain, as that is the nature of most country people. However, the latest iteration of our rate notices has left us shocked and confused.

“Despite public assurances by Mayor Jack Dempsey in the Canegrowers magazine leading up to the rates notice, the dramatic increase in rates, in our case double, has called into question the motives of local government if you consider that there is no additional benefits on offer.

“How can this be reconciled when, as is my understanding, the total rates bill from the community will increase by $5 million with all of the increase coming from Category 9 ratepayers. As a family business, I have calculated the recent rate notices as a total of close to $40,000 to pay for the year. I am at a loss to understand how this is justified. Some of our properties’ rates have more than doubled in cost.”

Mrs Clark told the CEO she feared for the future of the region.

Mrs Clark did not receive responses to her points from Mr Johnston.

Instead Mr Johnston sent Canegrowers and other farming organisations a letter saying farmers suffering hardship could “enter into a payment plan with council”.

He added: “Interest will apply to any balances that remain unpaid after January 1, 2021.”

THE BIGGEST BILL

Bundaberg Canegrowers Director and third-generation farmer Dean Cayley said it showed “complete disregard” for a sector that is a cornerstone of the community.

“You have to wonder what game is being played here at a time when farmers and the whole community is facing hardship – drought, water security issues, exorbitant power prices, COVID and unemployment,” he said.

“This is a rate rise that was delivered in a way that was stealthy and completely unexpected and is impacting all farming sectors.”

Mayor Dempsey said he was aware of the consortium running an organised campaign against the rate rises.

“Despite the pressure, council won't be reissuing rates notices or providing a blanket concession to an entire category, thereby shifting valuation impacts to residential pensioners, mums and dads and small businesses,” he said.

“Agricultural industry organisations would give their members better value for money by raising awareness in Brisbane about the long-term pain of taking water from Paradise Dam.

“As mayor I've always strived to unite our different communities and work with industry stakeholders to achieve the best possible outcomes for the Bundaberg region.

“We might have disagreements from time to time, but we should all work together for the overall wellbeing of our community,” he said.

Third generation cattle farmer Michael St Henry, said the rates were now their biggest bill.

“A $20,000 rates bill is bigger than our insurances, bigger than our fuel, bigger than any other cost.”

They run 850 head of cattle on 5,200 acres and have seen a rates hike of 80 per cent on 2019 levels.

“We are really wondering what Mayor Jack Dempsey is trying to do to us. Is he trying to get rid of us when we’re just trying to survive?”

Bundaberg Canegrowers, AgForce, Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers and Canegrowers Isis are driving a petition to bring rates back to CPI for all ratepayers, urban and farming.

Go to https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/dont-treat-bundy-farmers-like-rubbish-reverse-the-235-rates-hike.html


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