Budget: Small rate rise and a record capital works program
The Douglas Shire Council has handed down its 2020/21 Annual Budget today at Council Chambers in Mossman, the first under Mayor Michael Kerr, with a huge focus on capital works to stimulate the economy and help build the region out of COVID-19.
Under the new budget, there will be a small rise in general rates and utilities charges of 2.2 per cent, with Council resolving to restrict increases to remain in line with increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
However, ratepayers will get a reduction of 1.2 per cent off their general rates if the bill is paid before the due date.
This early bird discount is estimated to keep $140,000 in the pockets of ratepayers.
The budget also features a $48.27 million operating budget to complete a suite of 56 initiatives and a record $21.17 million capital works program.
Douglas Shire Mayor Michael Kerr said his first budget was a difficult one that featured an increased focus on roads, public spaces and water security, as well as creating more diverse jobs.
“Council must get back to basics, invest in critical infrastructure, create jobs and get on with the work that our ratepayers expect and want us to do,” he said.
“The community will see a renewed focus on the fundamentals with $12.5 million dedicated to civil projects such as to roads, footpaths and drains, and $3.34 million pumped into projects to improve our water security.
“You can also expect to see more workers on the ground with extra funds being allocated for outdoor crews to get the important tasks done.”
Across the next 12 months, Council will spend $18.7 million on materials and services, providing more opportunities for local contractors and suppliers.
Local businesses are encouraged to register at Vendor Panel to get notifications of council quotes and tenders.
Mayor Kerr added it was also important for Council to maintain the standard of the region's parks, gardens, and streetscapes ready for when tourism bounces back.
While Council had been on track to achieve a budget surplus prior to COVID-19, the economic impact of the pandemic along with continuing to offer the required level of service to ratepayers, is expected to push Council’s financial position back to a $3.7 million operating deficit.
Mayor Kerr said the Douglas Shire is as vulnerable as it is beautiful.
“Whether it is any of the recent natural disasters, or a global pandemic, our entire region buckles when our tourism sector falters. Businesses shut their doors, unemployment escalates and people leave the region.
“Economists predict that up to 1,547 jobs and $150 million could be lost from our local economy by the time they crunch the numbers for the June quarter in coming days. Now is the time for sensible policy and investment to build our resistance to outside influences.
“I believe we can do this by growing our rate base, diversifying industries and exploring revenue raising opportunities. This Budget is the start of that process.”
“This is not a time for Council to be creating a surplus, it’s a time for it to be creating jobs, repairing infrastructure and ensuring that the economy of the shire progresses.
“Whilst no one wants rises, this is a responsible budget that keeps Council financially viable without imposing any unreasonable increases,” he said.
An exception to the 2.2 per cent CPI rise is the waste management charges, which will see an increase of 5.38 per cent due to changes in the new waste management contract.
Council also estimates about $620,000 in pensioner rate subsidies and other rate discounts will be delivered over the next financial year. There are also policies in place to help those struggling to pay their rates.
The budget was passed, three votes to two, with Councillors’ Abigail Noli and Roy Zammataro disagreeing with the rate rise.
“Businesses and families are struggling financially and they will be for some time under COVID-19," Cr Zammataro said.
He added he believed this was the year to freeze rates.
“I believe this is achievable by Council if as a Council we curb our spending and concentrate on what is necessary to keep Douglas operational.”
The Douglas Shire Ratepayers Association (DSRA) said the announcement of a 2.2 per cent rate increase even with a discount for on time payment is “disappointing.”
“Most other Councils around the country particularly those in hardest hit areas like Far North Queensland, have exercised restraint in their budget to enable a rate freeze,” DSRA President Sylvia Healy said.
“This is not the year to have the highest capital expenditure budget. It is difficult to understand this logic. The best assistance Council can give to ratepayers in these difficult times, is to not burden them with additional costs, to fund non-essential expenditure.”
Mayor Kerr said that if Council did not implement this minimal rate increase in line with the CPI now, the deficit will grow bigger and will hurt more in the long term.
Councillors today also unanimously voted to turn down a 2 per cent pay rise.
Meanwhile Cairns Regional Council has voted to increase its rates by 1.8 per cent.
See the full budget report here.
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