Councillors vote to apply for Special Rate Variation to increase Port Stephens rates by 7.5%

Residents against the rate rise with councillor Giacomo Arnott and Port MP Kate Washington outside the council chambers on Tuesday night.
Residents against the rate rise with councillor Giacomo Arnott and Port MP Kate Washington outside the council chambers on Tuesday night.

Port Stephens ratepayers are to be slugged an extra 7.5 per cent in rates for the next seven years after councillors voted on the Special Rate Variation (SRV) against the backdrop of another highly volatile council meeting held on Tuesday night.

Crowds of onlookers showed signs of disapproval as the councillors voted 6-2 to increase the council rates by 7.5 per cent per annum over the next seven years.

The new rate is expected to cost ratepayers hundreds of extra dollars a year.

Earlier outside the council chambers, scores of concerned residents had staged a community rally addressed by Cr Giacomo Arnott and State Labor MP Kate Washington expressing their strong objections to any rate rise.

Cr Arnott received the lone support against option C from Cr Chris Doohan, but the pleas to retain the 2.7 per cent levy fell on deaf ears. Councillors Ken Jordan and Jaimie Abbott gave their apologies and missed Tuesday night’s meeting.

Cr Doohan said he voted against the 7.5 per cent increase because he was of the firm opinion, having spoken with his ratepayers, that the hike was too high.

“I would have been in favour of a more modest increase,” he said.

Since it was first proposed back in July, the SRV has divided the Port Stephens community between those who are supportive of a rate increase in order to fast track around $100 million in infrastructure, facilities and services and those who say they cannot afford such a hike at a time of rising electricity, petrol and insurance prices.

The council decision of a 7.5 per cent increase over seven years will need to be rubber stamped by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART).

Speaking against the rate hike, Cr Arnott described it as a ‘rotten proposal’ which will only add to the hardships people in the community are already facing.

“It will smash household budget, force families to struggle to put meals on the table,” he said.

“Reading through the submissions many of our ratepayers cannot afford the current rate let alone an extra $700 [on average] a year. It is ridiculous that the projects being offered have not been costed. Surely the reason people live in Port Stephens is because it is affordable.”

His concluding words ‘stop this now’ drew loud applause but it was not enough to convince the remaining councillors, all of whom gave their reasons for supporting a rate rise.

Cr John Nell said that after 30 years of saying “sorry, no money’’ to community, sporting and business groups, he was supporting the hike to give the people projects they deserve.

A passionate Cr Palmer talked about investments into the town centres, support for small and medium businesses and growth in areas such as Medowie.

“Do we stand by or wait for grants that might not never happen, or do we move Port Stephens forward,” he said.

“Let’s support and grow our towns and jobs, let’s invest in areas of rapid population growth and tourism.

“Let’s invest more in paths and cycleways, roads, drainage, sporting facilities, tree management, depots, foreshores and the list goes on. We need the funds to complete these projects.”

The staff report to councillors showed that much of the feedback from the community opposed increasing rates, with 61 per cent of the random telephone calls and 74 per cent of the opt-in survey voting Option 1 (to retain the existing rate peg as set by IPART).

It concluded that there was “some degree of support” for the three options to increase the rates ranging from 6.5 to 8.5 per cent.

The majority of respondents opposed to the larger increase cited lack of affordability (38 per cent), council living within its means, and lack of trust in the council to deliver.

The report also outlined a number of measures to assist pensioners and those who qualify under the ‘hardship policy’, such as rate concessions, flexible repayments, interest reductions and financial assistance.

Councillors said these measures would be negotiated in time.

The council will now notify IPART of its intention to apply for a rate increase of 7.5 per cent per annum over a seven-year term. The application is due to IPART on February 11, 2019.

The 7.5 per cent rise, which was option three, will see $42 million spent on sealing roads, $8.7 million on paths and cycleways, $2 million on a community arts centre at Raymond Terrace. 

SRV consultation feedback

  • The community consultation period ran between Monday, July 23 to Friday, September 7
  • Much of the feedback from the community opposed increasing rates. However, there was "some degree of support".
  • Council held or participated in 28 community events across the Port Stephens region, attended by approximately 540 people. 
  • More than 2000 people provided feedback on the SRV proposal including: 1624 surveys (1016 Engagement HQ surveys, 114 hard copy surveys, 91 hard copy short surveys, 403 telephone surveys); 416 feedback (198 handwritten and emailed submissions - long, 218 Engagement HQ submissions - short). 
  • 403 residents selected "opt-out" of random telephone survey conducted in the week of August 20. 
  • Random telephone survey saw 61% of respondents selected Option 1 (maintain current rate) as their first preference, while 39% of respondents selected one of the other three SRV options as their first preference.
  • "Opt-in" version of the random telephone survey saw 74% of respondents selected Option 1 as their first preference, 17% of respondents selected one of the three SRV options as their first preference, 9% did not answering this question.
  • A short quick survey after each community meeting completed by 87 people showed 45% of respondents selected Option 1 as their first preference, while 55% of respondents selected one of the three SRV options as their first preference.

Key issues identified within the submissions:

  1. Lack of Affordability (38% of respondents)
  2. Council needs to live within means (21%)
  3. Identified projects are not best use of SRV funds (15%)
  4. Lack of equity of project funding across the Local Government Area (13%)
  5. Lack of trust in Council to deliver (7%)
  6. 28% of respondents commented on issues other than the proposed SRV