GANNAWARRA Shire Council faces the prospect of legal action and lengthy negotiations if it does not reconsider plans to remove the differential rates system.
In what many affected residents are calling a repeat of history following similar efforts at the start of the century, council's plan for ratepayers to pay one single uniform rate across its four classifications by 2020/21 met firm opposition from the municipality's dryland sector.
Nineteen people, including a number of former councillors, raised their opposition to the proposal during a pre-budget hearing on Tuesday night – a snapshot of the 65 submissions received during the public comment period that directly related to the removal of the differential rates system.
All of those who spoke opposed council's plans to increase dryland farming rates by 7.6 per cent, compared with 0.3 per cent for commercial and industrial landowners, 1.4 per cent for irrigated properties and 1.5 per cent for residential landowners. Dryland farmers will face similar rates rises during the coming three financial years to bring the same uniform rate in the dollar for the Capital Improved Value of each property in the municipality if council adopts the strategy.
"What strategy does council have that reflects this view," Victorian Farmers Federation vice-president and Oakvale landowner, Brett Hosking said.
"Think about the jobs you are affecting with this plan. Does it help or diminish residents' ability to contribute to the community."
Many who addressed council outlined the lack of services residents living in the west of the shire receive compared with the rates they paid.
"If our rates are to increase, what benefits will be directed to the Avoca Ward, or will the funds benefit the main towns of Kerang and Cohuna," fellow opponent, John Knight said.
"How did council come up with this proposal? Was it something you, as councillors, dreamed up, or was it put to you by management?"
Others argued that unlike other businesses, which can pass on increasing costs to customers, grain growers cannot do so due to the fact rates are seen as a "fixed cost".
"Farming is just a business and should be rated no differently to a plumbing business, an electrical goods business, hardware shop or a veterinary clinic," Normanville resident, Geoff Kendell said.
"Farming is the only occupation that depends on land as an asset to the business. The land is the business and not a shopfront," Leitchville resident, Bernice Lumsden said.
Some who spoke outlined their considerations of relocating to neighbouring municipalities if the proposal proceeds.
"In 2010 we paid $10,400 in rates, with this figure increasing to $22,681 in 2017, despite living on the same size of land since 1993, and all we receive is a grader that comes to grade our road once a year," Lalbert resident, Peter Pola said. "If our rates have doubled in the past seven years, what will happen in the next seven years? It will not be sustainable to pay $44,000 in rates for the grading of one road."
Councillors were urged to consider the impact the proposed increases would have on communities – with many arguing the time people give to support local community brigades and other organisations would diminish as landowners would need to use the time to cover the costs of paying the rates.
"For the past 18 years I have been collecting food for people in the area who are struggling, and I do not think council knows how bare the cupboard is," local volunteer, Mary Fenton said.
Councillors will consider all views raised, with the final version of the 2017/18 budget to be presented to the next council meeting on June 28.
* CORRECTION: According to the council, the transition to a common rate would mean that in 2017-2018, 428 dryland farm properties in Gannawarra with the median value of $391,000 would incur an increase of around $148, not $481 as reported last Friday.