People power mobilising against cost hike in levy charge
CLUTCHING letters from Rockhampton Regional Council warning they would become hundreds of dollars poorer annually, angry Rockhampton and Mount Morgan locals flocked to a meeting on Thursday to air their grievances.
Hosted by "rates rebel” Raymond Bellert, the fact finding forum gave the opportunity to over 35 locals to vent their frustrations about changes to the charging of the Emergency Management Levy (EML) to One Nation's Mirani MP Stephen Andrew and Rockhampton Region's Deputy Mayor Cherie Rutherford.
An audit conducted by the Queensland Government's auditor general on seven local councils revealed that RRC had been incorrectly collecting the EML on behalf of the state government, charging per rates notice instead of billing per lot of land, forcing RRC to send out letters warning of a future rates sting to multiple lot owners.
While no one doubted the importance the EML's vital role supporting of the emergency services' role in the community, many of the gathered rate payers were already battling economic hardship, drought, unemployment, and no idea how to cope with this fresh bill blow-out
Locals told horror stories about their properties, particularly older ones in Rockhampton's CBD and Mount Morgan's miners cottages, which had ancient title lines indicating lots sometimes only a few metres in size which would now lead to hundreds of dollars in out of pocket expenses.
Estimated to affect 1,300 properties across the region, the projected extra cost to bills varied widely depending upon the classification of the land, number of lots owned and how many emergency services officers were stationed in the area.
Unemployed Mount Morgan Mine tour operator John Steinberger, who owned a three lot property in Mount Morgan, said he would have to pay an additional $34.40 annually.
A Koongal pensioner with with two lots in Thozet Creek will have to pay $179 more per year while other speakers claimed to owe between $127 and $400.
A RRC spokesperson estimated up to 70 rate payers would have face bills over $1,000.
Caught between a rock and hard place, these rate payers said they'd have to spent hundreds or thousands to go through the convoluted process of surveying their land and combining their land titles - an unaffordable and impractical process.
Addressing the anger, Cr Rutherford urged people not to shoot the messenger, saying RRC intended to gather information on the situation to make a submission to the state government.
She urged those who felt they had a case to answer to contact the rates department of RRC to look into it.
Following the result of the Federal Election, Cr Rutherford said the state government was being forced to listen and respond to people power.
"The community is starting to speak up, it is numbers that push change,” she said.
Convinced that the Queensland Government was exploiting the people who could afford it the least in the community to pay down their debt, Mr Andrew promised he would research the EML issue, launch a petition and take the fight up to the government in state parliament.
"All I'm seeing is people hurting because the government is demanding money that they don't have,” Mr Andrew said.
He hoped that a positive solution like grandfathering existing paying arrangements or making it easier to combine land titles could be reached in collaboration with the government.
When questioned whether there was a way to fix this situation or to show flexibility when charging people struggling to cover the additional cost impost, a QFES spokesperson said they were bound by existing arrangements.
"Each local government must assess the properties in its area and apply the appropriate levy to each separately titled property (lot). It is the responsibility of the relevant local government to ensure properties are assessed and levied correctly,” the spokesperson said.
"QFES has an ongoing audit program to ensure the EML is applied correctly under the Fire and Emergency Services Act 1990 and the Fire and Emergency Services Regulation 2011.
"In the case of multiple lots, the Act does not provide an exemption to the EML where a person owns multiple lots. However, a definition of the term 'farm' has been added to the Act to provide certainty that contiguous lots used as bona-fide farm land, owned by the same owner, attract a single levy.
"The Act does not provide any ability to amend, waive or make changes to either the statutory levy class or the statutory levy category. It is a binding formula created by law and local authorities and QFES are bound by the law.”
Property owners can contact the QFES Levy Management Unit on 3635 3041 or at QFESLevy@qfes.qld.gov.au