Tenterfield Have Your Say's Peter Murphy is confident that his ratepayer petition presented to Wednesday's council meeting has put councillors on notice that any further financial burden placed on ratepayers will have to be well-justified.
The petition stated that council fees and charges had reached unsustainable levels after increases in the past two years. It demanded there be no new fees or charges introduced in 2020/21 and that any increases on existing charges be limited to five percent.
Of the 784 signatories, 572 were confirmed as ratepayers. There were 131 that don't pay rates (could well be partners of those who do), 60 couldn't be identified at all and 27 had signed more than once.
Still the confirmed signatories accounted for more than 10 per cent of the number of rateable properties in Tenterfield, giving weight to the petition's position.
With the pending need to fund water infrastructure to drought-proof the township, amidst other demands on council's resources, councillors were reluctant to commit themselves to no new charges.
They instead noted the petition and will consider its request as part of the budget preparation process.
Council's chief executive Terry Dodds pointed out that Tenterfield's rates already compare very favourably with those of its neighbours, and against those of similar-sized councils. These comparisons can be found at a new Office of Local Government (OLG) comparison site.
This may be of little comfort, however, for those struggling to pay their rates bill. IPART (the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal) has capped council's overall rates income to a 2.6 per cent increase for next year, although rates charges for individual properties are affected by the Valuer-General's revaluations.
Charges, of course, are treated separately although also appear on the rates bill. Services like water, waste and sewer are supposed to be self-funding, including putting aside money for future outlays like a new cell at the Boonoo Boonoo landfill site. A smaller pool of ratepayers means each has to bear a greater proportion, although council has secured a number of grants to lighten that burden.
Ratepayers on town water systems should note that water charges will likely exceed the five percent threshold requested by the petition, given that Tenterfield has to contribute 25 per cent of the current $4 million water infrastructure outlay.
Increases in other fees and charges are expected to be at or under that threshold, depending on the budget process which is now underway.
Mr Dodds warned that $4 million for a new waste cell is largely unfunded, and the drought may be doing damage underground as the sewer system isn't being flushed through as much, allowing gases to build up and affect the concrete.
He said the timer bridge replacement program is largely under control, although a bridge could collapse tomorrow and generate a bill for $350,000 that hasn't been budgeted for.
"It's in our interests to keep rates and changes as low as possible because it means more money in the community," Mr Dodds said.
"But if we miss out on low-interest Treasury Corp loans due to not meeting OLG guidelines, it will end up costing the community more."
Councillor Bronwyn Petrie said in tough times we all have to identify efficiencies and cut costs to make the dollars go further.
"The community at the moment has a limited capacity to pay," she said.
Cr Greg Sauer anticipates "a very robust discussion" when the draft budget is presented to councillors in the March meeting for their consideration. Mr Murphy, for one, will be keeping a close eye.
"It is now very clear that ratepayer pressure will need to be maintained on councillors to ensure that there will be improved council fiscal restraint in the 2020/21 budgetary process," he said, "and that council's annual rates, fees and charges not only are affordable but also do not further negatively impact the property market by discouraging buyers and businesses because what would have been retail dollars are siphoned off into council coffers.
"With councillor elections now only 10 months away, councillors will have to think twice as to what increases in council's ratepayer costs to approve.
"And it is now time for those interested in running for council to highlight what changes they want to see in how councillors and council discharge their responsibilities."