A group of concerned residents attended the Armidale Regional Council November meeting this week to voice their objection to the proposed rate increase currently being put to the community.
Armidale's local government has been operating on an income provided by a special rate variation (SRV) for nearly two decades, and Armidale Regional Council says it will be unable to continue to provide the current level of services and asset renewal unless a rate increase of 20.5 per cent is approved and implemented next year.
The other options being proposed are to either replace the loss of the current SRV of 10.5 per cent to maintain council services in the short term (but increase the backlog of asset renewal) or cease the rate variation and cut back on council services and infrastructure maintenance.
In the council chambers on Wednesday, Joshua Fittler stood up to voice the residents' group opinion after interim administrator Viv May thanked them for their patience and invited him to address the meeting before it was closed.
"We are in the middle of the most significant economic downturn for 70 years," Mr Fittler said.
"On top of that, the community is recovering from the effects of bushfires and the worst drought in the history of rainfall recording.
"And the council wants to make a seven-year-old special rates variation of 10 per cent which was due to expire this year permanent and apply for another 10 per cent."
Mr Fittler initiated the protest through the social media platform Facebook where he rallied residents to urge councillors ( and staff ) to better manage Armidale Regional Council's finances, increase budget transparency and set rates to a level that reflects incomes and economic growth in the region.
"The rates are really stifling growth in the region - over the last decade real estate prices have gone up by 0.5 per cent per year whereas the rate peg has been at least 2 per cent per year," Mr Fittler said.
"The rate peg alone is outgrowing the region, and it's not sustainable. The local government area also faces the prospects of a 20 per cent rise in land rates."
Mr Fittler said the community would hold the Armidale Regional Council accountable for budget deficiencies.
"At a time when one of the towns major employers - the University of New England, has announced it will be cutting 200 jobs to balance its budget, the council needs to recognise that there is simply less money in the community," Mr Fittler said.
"It cannot go on spending as much as it has been, and it needs to live within its means as does everyone else."
After the council meeting, Mr Fittler said he thought Armidale Regional Council's interim administrator was very good at his job and he believed Mr May when he said community concerns were being taken on board.
"Mr May has done many good things in his time here," he said.
"I would like to thank him for allowing us an opportunity to voice the concerns of the 700 (and growing) people we are representing.
"He has made it clear that he is taking our feedback (as well as feedback from the rest of the community) into account over the consultation period.
"However, we will not know his response until his decision to increase rates, maintain rates or reduce rates is finalised in early December."
Suspended Councillor Peter Bailey is also echoing the objections raised by the residents.
"The special rate variation is fraught with danger for the Armidale region", Mr Bailey said
"Armidale Regional Council can't keep going to the ratepayers every time it has a revenue shortfall - it must learn to live within its means.
"The Armidale region has gone through a very tough time with Droughts, COVID-19 and Bushfires.
"Council has experienced a significant revenue loss at the Airport due to COVID-19 restrictions and in addition, it is estimated that council has outlaid $1,500,000 in retrenchment costs."
Mr Bailey said he would be supporting the second option being proposed - where the current SRV of 8.5 per cent becomes permanent plus 2.0 per cent rate peg (giving a total 10.5 per cent) commencing in the 2021-22 financial year.
"We as Ratepayers are already paying this special rate variation and as a consequence, I will encourage people to support this option," Mr Bailey said.
"It is unfair and unreasonable for Armidale regional ratepayers to support the first option, which would see another 10 per cent increase over the present SRV.
"Armidale Regional Council needs to live within its means and it that means a staff freeze and reduction of services that is preferable to further slugging ratepayers at this time."
The Infrastructure funding that council had received over the last six years was a double-edged sword, according to Mr Bailey.
"Yes, we get a new piece of infrastructure, but then the asset then sits on our balance sheet with huge consequences for the depreciation that affects our bottom line," he said.
"If we let this through I would bet they would be banging on the door for another increase within the next 10 years."
The council started community engagement on the three SRV options for consideration in its final proposal to IPART, and to provide further clarity on the mandatory process for harmonisation of rates, at the beginning of November.
Submissions to the council will close on Thursday, December 10.