Southern Down's extra rates bills scrapped
SUPPLEMENTARY rates notices have been scrapped following a fiery meeting with affected residents on Wednesday night.
Mayor Peter Blundell described the notices saga as a "perfect storm".
"Council has listened to the concerns of these ratepayers," he said.
"As outlined at the public meeting, council believed, under the Local Government Act, that it must gather the supplementary rates as directed by the Department of Natural Resources. However, having gained further legal advice we are informed that we can provide concession to affected landowners.
"Council is concerned about the ambiguity in the Local Government Act in relation to changes in land valuations and all councillors are particularly troubled that there are long delays with land valuations.
"As part of our resolution today council has decided to write to the Department of Natural Resources strongly voicing these concerns," he said.
Tensions boiled over in Wednesday night's meeting, with more than 100 residents packing into the Town Hall to voice their frustration.
Cr Blundell was joined by Deputy Mayor Ross Bartley, Crs Vic Pennisi, Denise Ingram and Jamie Mackenzie, acting CEO David Tuxford, representatives from the Department of Natural Resources and Mining and resident Ken Wiggan, who called for the meeting.
Cr Blundell told the meeting he understood their concerns and said the whole issue could have been done better.
"I know this issue has caused a lot of angst," he said. "I'd have to say my view is it's a perfect storm."
In a surprise move, Cr Blundell apologised for the wording on the notices, describing it as "unacceptable".
"The writing left a lot to be desired - I don't think it's acceptable at all," he said. "That's a lesson we as a council need to learn from this."
Despite the apology, residents let fly with heated debate and one overriding question: why?
Freestone Heights resident Karen Mills, who has lived at her property for just a month, was vocal about her disgust.
"It stinks - I have no confidence in a council who gives me a bill for a three-year period when I've owned the property for less than a year," she said.
"I have no confidence in this council - I think it's rude the way they've treated residents in all this."
Cr Blundell said a loophole in the laws meant residents could be back-charged for periods in which they didn't own the property.
"The debt remains on the land," he said.
He explained the process, from the valuations in 2012 to the supplementary rates notices, with help from department representatives.
"The change in planning scheme brought this about in the first place," he said.
"When we look at the expanding of rural residential, we saw the need for more rural residential land at Mt Tabor and west of Warwick."
Greg Crowley, from the department, said the two-year period represented the time from the change in the planning scheme to the June issuing of rates.
"What you had before is unimproved value of the block of land assuming no improvements had been made," he said.
"In 2011 site value was introduced for non-rural zones. Effectively you've gone from rural zones to rural residential - from unimproved to site value."
Angry residents questioned the legality of the council's notices, arguing that it had discretion as to whether or not it passed on the supplementary rates.
In response, a sympathetic acting CEO David Tuxford recited the relevant section of the Local Government Act.
"I can feel your pain - believe me I really do - but we are bound by legislation."
Mr Tuxford said the rates would mean $122,000 extra revenue, with 251 bills and 19 refunds.
Cr Blundell foreshadowed yesterday's special meeting to resolve the issue.
"We won't be pursuing any charges until the issue is resolved," Cr Blundell said. "There won't be any penalties incurred during the resolution of this issue."
Those who have already paid supplementary bills will be refunded.