FEW people are excited to receive their rates notice, and it is likely even fewer will be happy to see the figures on it rise after most Hunter councils won approval on Monday to lift their rates beyond the statewide annual limit.
Hunter councils have long butted against the imposed limit on annual rate rises, with numerous councils seeking rises at different stages over the past decade. The pandemic, of course, has added pressure.
The good news is that the rises are far from exorbitant. City of Newcastle has gauged the average household rate hike will cost about $40 more a year.
Muswellbrook Shire Council general manager Fiona Plesman expects residences to pay $16 more, with businesses copping an extra $52 and farmers $56. Upper Hunter puts it differently: "When rates, water, sewerage and waste management charges are combined, the average household can expect a rise of $1.17 per week".
These are hardly king's ransoms, but they will undoubtedly add up for households charged that bit more at the petrol pump and supermarket as well.
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The level of demand to exceed the rate cap poses questions about how useful or adequate the allowance actually has been. The Independent Regulatory and Pricing Tribunal (IPART) has committed to a review, acknowledging that the cap may not be flexible enough to cope with volatility in the modern market.
There will always be those who extol the virtues of councils slashing everything but roads, rates and rubbish from their balance sheets. Certainly, as City of Newcastle chief executive Jeremy Bath told the regulator, that is the other option without lifting the rates income. Yet it is also noteworthy that there were no submissions - for or against - in response to any Hunter rate rise proposal, save Lake Macquarie's.
At the same time, those apparently core businesses are far from simple themselves at the moment. This newspaper has reported an epidemic of potholes and road repairs across the region after the deluges that began the year. State governments reap most of the fees involved with rubbish while councils are left with the bills and backlash. As those areas tighten, that leaves only rates for local government's recourse.
Maitland and Dungog were the only Hunter councils not to seek higher fees from ratepayers, with Maitland mayor Philip Penfold saying council would absorb the cost. Residents and businesses will certainly appreciate that gesture, but will equally expect council's core business to remain at a high standard. Time will tell which fiscal path was wisest, with ratepayers likely to be the most important judges.
There are consequences to spending, just as there are consequences to not spending. If there is a silver lining here, perhaps it is that scrutiny upon where that extra money poured into communal coffers goes will be more intense than ever.
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