Business declares war on council ‘cash grab’

● Too much take, not enough give, saysunhappy owner
杭州桑拿

NEWCASTLE council’s pursuit of a 46.9per cent increase in residential and business rates has hit a new battlefront as the region’s key business group takes aim at City Hall.

It has also sparked a war of words between two of the city’s most powerful and influential leaders.

The latest salvo was fired by Hunter Business Chamber chief Kristen Keegan, who accused the council of a ‘‘cash grab’’ that could force some businesses to the wall.

Lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes fired back, saying the council was seeking the rises to not only balance the council’s books but meet the cost of city revitalisation projects which the community and business groups want.

The council surprised many in November when it voted to apply for a 46.9per cent increase to residential and business rates over the next five years. The move came after it was widely tipped to seek a 37.5per cent increase over the same period.

The council’s public consultation found more people favoured the 37.5per cent increase over other options.

If the application is approved by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal in May, the average residential rates bill will soar by $500 a year by 2020. The average business rates bill will rise by almost $3000 to $9422 a year in 2020.

Many of the city’s small business owners are livid, with some telling the Herald they will need to find another $5000 a year to pay rates on their home and business.

The chamber has emailed its 1800 members and urged them to lodge submissions with IPaRT opposing the council’s application.

Besides the added cost to business, the chamber was angry the council was ignoring its own feedback.

The chamber also took aim at the council’s application which said the community had indicated its support for the higher rise at the recent byelections.

‘‘Are they kidding?’’ Ms Keegan asked. ‘

‘There was no ‘clear feedback’ for the higher rate rise at all. Which one of them went to the election saying they were going to raise rates by nearly 50per cent? Council’s submission suggests that the engagement campaign demonstrated ‘strong community support for a higher rate increase’ but failed to mention that [the smaller increase] was supported by the vast majority in both the independent survey and the council survey.

Ms Keegan said the 37.5per cent option was reasonable as it was underpinned by an ‘‘agreed strategic plan to deliver on services in a financially responsible manner’’.

The average business rate this year is $6437. A 37.5per cent increase over five years will take the annual bill to $8841 by 2020, or $9422 if the council’s application for 46.9per cent is approved.

The difference between the two options, Cr Nelmes said, is only $116 a year, but that doesn’t include the cumulative increases.

She said the chamber’s attitude was ‘‘disappointing’’ given it had called for council to balance its books and invest in infrastructure.

‘‘Essentially the chamber is asking for support to stop council funding city revitalisation,’’ Cr Nelmes said, and that ‘‘will hinder many projects’’ including the restoration of City Hall, replacing bus stops, accelerating work on Hunter Street, as well as road, footpath and cycleway projects.

‘‘The chamber’s view is short-sighted and shows a complete lack of understanding of what Newcastle requires,’’ Cr Nelmes said.

‘‘We need the chamber to be working with us, not just be a mouthpiece for conservative politics. Our city has been divided for too long. Council has embarked on a road to financial recovery with a mandate to protect and improve services.’’

‘‘What mandate?’’ Ms Keegan replied. ‘‘Their own public consultation showed that a 46.9per cent rate rise is not what the majority of people want. And to suggest the chamber is not supportive of the city’s revitalisation is ludicrous.’’