Pressure mounts for State rate subsidy

Rates a big impost for drought stricken Gippsland farmers


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ONGOING DROUGHT: Giffard West mixed farmer Trent Anderson says he has 12 rate notices, totalling about $30,000. Photo by Peter Kostos.

ONGOING DROUGHT: Giffard West mixed farmer Trent Anderson says he has 12 rate notices, totalling about $30,000. Photo by Peter Kostos.

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Local government says its unable to provide rate subsidies to Gippsland farmers.

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Pressure is growing on the State Government to provide rate relief for drought-stricken farmers in eastern Victoria.

Farmers, councils and Federal and State politicians have called for direct rate subsidies to help primary producers in East Gippsland and Wellington shires.

Victorian Farmers Federation president David Jochinke said the rating system was broken, and agriculture was carrying more than its fair share of the burden.

"Not only that, rural communities are not getting value for what we do pay," Mr Jochinke said.

He said that while the VFF was keen to look at new rating systems, the immediate priority was to alleviate pressure on farmers.

"There is an attitude that if there is to be rate relief, local government needs to provide it," Mr Jochinke said.

"The reality is local government has almost no capacity to do that, without either Federal or State support.

'We call on those higher levels of government to look for opportunities to help those farmers, particularly in shires like Wellington and East Gippsland, where the situation is critical."

East Gippsland and Wellington are the two Victorian municipalities that have been formally drought declared by the Federal Government.

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Federal support

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has written to all state premiers and Territory chief ministers asking them to relieve farmers and drought affected small businesses of council rates.

Mr Littleproud said one of the things farmers raised continuously with him, was whether the state government could relieve them of their rates.

"This would provide immediate, practical relief to communities hurting from drought," Mr Littleproud said.

"Rates are often a huge expense for farmers, and with no income coming in, paying them can be very hard."

And Victoria's opposition Agriculture spokesman Peter Walsh earlier this year called for shire rates relief.

"Shire rate relief and water charge rebates have proved to be effective in the past," Mr Walsh said

"The Premier said he would be happy to sit down and talk ideas and while the Liberal Nationals will take up that offer, we do hope that these two practical measures can be implemented swiftly to bring immediate relief to farmers and our communities that are in dire need."

Cash injection

Victorian Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes
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Victorian Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes .

Victorian Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes said the government's $43million drought package included cash injections into farmers' pockets.

"That is an unrestricted cash injection, it was actually calculated on a percentage of the average rates, for farmers, in that region," Ms Symes said.

"I don't think it's up to the government to tell farmers where their business pressures are; I think they are pretty good business people themselves, so we have enabled them to chose which bills they pay.

"I have no doubt the vast majority will choose to use that money on their rates bill."

Agriculture Victoria staff had met with farmers in Stradbroke, Dutson, Giffard, Seaspray and Bengworden to support the adoption of practices to reduce wind erosion.

As a part of that support, Agriculture Victoria had brought in a technical expert from Swan Hill and a former Gippsland soil conservation expert.

Staff were also encouraging farmers to establish and use Stock Containment Areas, if they were not already doing so, as a way of mitigating potential erosion risks.

Drought cannot be declared as a natural disaster under the formal Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements that many farmers might be familiar with.

Ms Symes said the Victorian Government was supporting and would continue to support, drought impacted farmers in Central Gippsland with targeted assistance

This was not contingent on a drought declaration.

Council support

East Gippsland mayor Councillor Natalie O'Connell said she'd written to the government, seeking urgent assistance with rate support for the shire's farming community.

"This request comes after feedback from our farming community that this type of assistance is the most equitable assistance we can provide at this time," Cr O'Connell said.

The council had asked for farm rate support for this, and next, financial year. Average farm rates in the 2018/19 budget were $1,656 plus $289.71 municipal charge, where it was applied.

Cr O'Connell said the total required to cover the farm rate and associated municipal charge was $4.994 million for this financial year.

A single farming enterprise may have multiple assessments.

"We will just have to keep pushing and hope we get something from them. It needs to come from the state; we couldn't fund it ourselves.

"Providing the rate relief without assistance from the Government would have an impact on our budget in the constrained environment of rate capping, and would result in a reduction in service levels across the shire that would need to be absorbed by all ratepayers."

"Transport subsidies for water and feed will also be raised as another way of alleviating pressure on those that are struggling.

"The ball is in the Minister's court."

Wellington Shire council mayor Councillor Alan Hall said he was pleased Mr Littleproud had raised the issue, with the government.

"We have made the point local government doesn't have the capacity to deal with such matters, so we are looking for the state for its support," Cr Hall said.

"We are saddened that the level of recognition and support for our farmers is not stronger."

Cr Hall said there was already a 20 per cent farm differential in place, and council was looking at what capacity it had to support its farming community further.

"Bear in mind, local government is operating in a rate capped environment, and we are constrained on the revenue side of the equation," he said.

"Every element of our community is now starting to feel the impact of this devastating drought."

High rates

Read more: Make FHA process simpler, say Gippsland producers, counsellors

Giffard West mixed farmer Trent Anderson said he had 12 rate notices, totalling about $30,000.

He was one of the farmers calling for rate subsidies and other financial help.

Mr Anderson said he had about 600 cattle, mainly cows, on agistment on properties at Meeniyan, Colac and near Bateman's Bay, NSW.

"Because it's so diabolical, I'm not looking so much for freight subsidies for hay and grain, but I'd like to see it on transporting stock to agistment," Mr Anderson said.

"Now there's been a bit of rain around, we need to get stock to where the feed it.

"I've just sent 140 cows up past Bateman's Bay; it's going to be a fair freight bill, let alone the agistment cost."

He said he was spending about $20,000 a month on agistment and had purchased about 300 tonnes of cereal hay, for his ewes.

Councils couldn't help with rate subsidies, as they had a limited income stream.

"The government has 1000 different income streams," he said.

The Premier, Daniel Andrews, should visit the area, to see the situation at first hand.

"You could call him Dan the 150-kilometre man, he can't make it 150km from Melbourne," Mr Anderson said.

"He governs for all of Victoria, as long as you live within 150km of Melbourne."

Wool producer Steve Harrison, Giffard West, said many farmers were facing feed bills of $20-50,000 a month.

"I keep banging on about it, but the answer is rate relief," Mr Harrison said.

"That's equitable across all farmers - while some people are calling for freight relief, the rate subsidy is equitable."

His rate bill was more than $20,000, but he said he knew of a neighbour who had one of $40,000.

Ivan Best, Giffard, said his bill was $16,000.

"You can talk all you like about rate relief, but it doesn't appear to be falling on anyone's ears - I don't think the government wants to hear about it," Mr Best said.

He said all his cattle were now on agistment, and he had halved the number of sheep he was carrying.

"Rain is the big answer, you can talk all you like about rate relief, but it doesn't appear to be falling on anyone's ears.

"I don't think the government wants to hear about it.

"But everyone seems to think that's the fairest way; it's the easiest one to budget for because they know the exact amount."

He said he believed fodder freight subsidies would also help.

"We are paying top dollar to get our hay or any fodder we can get, NSW and Queensland have the luxury of a subsidy," he said.

"We are not in the game for handouts; we'd just like to be on an equal playing field, with the others."

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