COVID-19 is the largest economic challenge the city has faced since the closure of BHP.
Governments of all levels and political persuasions need to step up to help alleviate the impacts of this crisis.
City of Newcastle has taken a clear leadership approach to tackle the impacts of COVID, with additional expenditure adopted and communicated through its annual budget.
Against this backdrop, it was unfortunate to read Cr John Church's opinion piece in the Herald (27/06), where he tried to use the COVID-19 crisis for a political purpose, with a narrative around rates that is at best half-truths.
The Herald op-ed was the first chance for fellow councillors to understand Cr Church's position, as he didn't speak to the budget when it was presented to the elected council, nor try to make any amendments.
With ever increasing community demand for services and continued cost shifting from other levels of government, revenue from rates are always under pressure.
As the Herald has reported, all Hunter councils (and 98 per cent of all NSW councils) will increase total rates levied by 2.6 per cent in 2020-21: a value set by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) to offset the actual impact of inflation experienced by councils over the past 12 months.
This means that the council's purchasing power is unchanged.
While the total amount that the council can collect is capped by IPART, the way rates are divided between households and businesses depends both on unimproved property values and the number of households and businesses in the local government area.
Thanks to record development activity in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of houses and businesses in Newcastle, meaning that the council's total revenue is split between more properties.
This means that many ratepayers will have lower bills.
In fact, 41,200 Newcastle residential properties and 2600 businesses will pay less for rates next year than they do now. Indeed, average business rates decrease by $277 per property (a saving of 5 per cent in real terms), with business ratepayers only paying more if their land values have increased by more than 33 per cent since the last valuation.
For the average resident the total increase as a result of the rate peg is $34 (or 2.2 per cent, less than actual inflation and less than $9 per quarter).
It's disappointing to see Cr Church dismiss this 5 per cent saving as "tiny decrease", while deriding the much smaller 2.2 per cent as a "much larger increase".
COVID-19 has hit the city hard, and some households and businesses are doing it tough.
That is why the elected council decided that funds collected from the 2.6 per cent rate peg be allocated to hardship support for those in need.
This includes interest-free payment plans, grants to charities supporting families in need, expanding digital library programs for households in lockdown, and an industry taskforce to get investment underway post-crisis.
Is Cr Church seriously suggesting that giving ratepayers a benefit of less than $9 per quarter is better than meaningful and well-targeted support to those ratepayers doing it tough?
My Labor colleagues are clear on the city's role in the economic recovery of Newcastle.
We've made a difficult political decision to dip into savings and run a budget deficit for the first time since 2013 in order to deliver the city's largest ever capital works program, valued at $116 million.
I believe that ratepayers expect us to be supporting local jobs with infrastructure investment like this.
Cr Church and his conservative colleagues instead suggest that the council run a Tony Abbott style budget, axing projects and standing down staff.
Just weeks ago, Cr Church proposed that remaining capital works be delayed or cancelled in order to prevent an on-paper deficit at the end of the financial year.
Due to the way that capital works are expensed, his proposal could only have been achieved had $28 million in works been delayed or cancelled, and requiring council employees working on our capital program to be sent home.
That's no way to run a business, let alone a city.
Instead of the austerity program suggested by Cr Church and his colleagues, this Labor-led council has chosen to deliver a record works program, funded from savings (not new borrowings), that will improve the city and generate an estimated economic output of $275 million within the local government area, creating 700 local jobs.
After five years on the council I am seeing our city start to shine.
While COVID has had a profound impact on many local businesses, now is a time for the City of Newcastle to be investing in our city, not pandering to neo-liberal Church-onomics from the Newcastle Independent block.