Alexandrina's elected members approve 2020-21 budget by a single vote: Rates rise of 1.2 per cent confirmed

Budget locked in: Alexandrina's elected members have approved the council's proposed 2020-21 budget - which includes a 1.2 per cent rates rise - by a slim margin of one vote.
Budget locked in: Alexandrina's elected members have approved the council's proposed 2020-21 budget - which includes a 1.2 per cent rates rise - by a slim margin of one vote.

Alexandrina's 2020-21 draft Budget and Business Plan will now be put into effect, after elected members approved the document, with the decision coming down to a single vote at a special council meeting held on Monday, July 13.

The budget will see a 1.2 per cent general rates rise for this financial year, a reduction from 2019-20's 3.2 per cent increase.

A lengthy debate took place in front of a socially-distanced gallery at the council's Goolwa chambers on Monday night, with the final vote being 6-5 in favour of adoption.

A further delay in adopting the council's proposed budget would have come at a cost of about $20,000 per week.

Supporting the budget were councillors Bradford, Keily, Maidment, Stewart, Rebbeck and Gardner.

Voting against the budget were councillors Lewis, Scott, Carter, Coomans and Farrier.

The approval of a rates rise during the COVID-19 pandemic dominated discussion and ultimately split elected members, while debate on borrowings and a commitment to a climate plan also took place.

A 1.2 per cent rates rise had been the recommendation of the council's expert Audit Committee and was seen by councillors who backed the budget as a way of responding to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic while providing for the effective maintenance of infrastructure projects and limiting borrowing.

A number of rate increase scenarios were considered prior to public consultation on the draft budget, which ran from June 15 to July 6.

As part of this consultation, the council received 120 responses, representing 0.6 per cent of ratepayers (18,860) or 0.4 per cent of the district's population (27,427). This was a significant increase in feedback from previous years.

This feedback highlighted a number of key topics, with a majority of feedback (32 per cent) being focussed on support for climate initiatives.

While concerns over a rate rise for 2020-21 dominated debate among elected members, only about 23 per cent of respondents to community consultation were opposed to any rate rise.

Speaking at the July 13 meeting, mayor Keith Parkes said he was against a rate increase for the 2020-21 financial year.

"I don't support a rate increase this year... I'm worried about the people in the region who are doing it tough," Mr Parkes said.

Mr Parkes said a recession brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic made the future unclear for federal, state and local governments.

"Like many of you [elected members] I'm concerned about where we are going and what the future is... this is new territory and it's un-mapped," he said.

Councillor Bronwyn Lewis gave a particularly impassioned speech against any rates rise, quoting from residents who provided feedback in favour of rates relief.

"Our constituents are very clearly saying no to a rate increase," Cr Lewis said.

"We are looking at a budget that has the highest impact on our lowest socio-economic residents.

"There is no way I can support a rate rise and likewise there is no way I can support a rise in debt."

In response, councillor Rex Keily AM said community feedback on the draft budget did not show this, with only 26 people submitting feedback against a rates rise.

While less feedback focussed on rates and infrastructure projects than climate issues, councillor Bill Coomans said, these responses "stood out as what was important to ratepayers," as opposed to responses on climate plans, which had an element of "sameness".

In councillor John Carter's eyes, feedback on the draft budget was limited due to the document being difficult to understand.

"It is so difficult to understand... what chance does an unqualified person have of understanding it and responding to it?" Cr Carter said.

"In future, we need to amend this so it is easier to understand."

Councillor Lewis agreed and suggested the significant elderly population in the district who did not use computers may have found providing feedback difficult.

Physical feedback forms were however offered at council offices during the public consultation process.

Councillors Farrier, Coomans and Scott who did not support the budget, raised concerns on rates, increased borrowing and the extent to which elected members had oversight on the creation of the budget.

Councillor Craig Maidment disagreed.

"On balance, in my opinion... this budget is a good budget," Cr Maidment said.

"There is positive feedback within this public consultation."

Councillor Karyn Bradford echoed his sentiments.

"My personal opinion is that we have done a good job of consulting the community and we have considered options in regards to rates," Cr Bradford said.

"1.2 per cent seems like the best-case scenario given that it gives us a modest amount of borrowings, whereas a rate freeze would result in a substantial rise in borrowings.

"We have had this budget looked at by the Audit Committee, we have had public consultation, we have had the results and I feel like we should stick with that."

Councillor Melissa Rebbeck agreed and commended the council's staff for their work during the budget process.

"I'd like to commend administration for a very well thought out plan," Cr Rebbeck said.

"I think everything has been taken into consideration... I really do think we are so fortunate to be with the administration we are with and have this plan they have developed.

"We do need to spend a little bit and borrow a little bit to continue to support our economy and region and there needs to be a little bit of give and take to support our region going forward.

"If we delay this [budget adoption] it's going to cost us $20,000 per week, do we want to do that to our community?"