By Danielle Kutchel
The City of Casey has seen a 15 per cent increase in the number of residents in arrears on their rates.
The alarming jump comes as the council makes changes to its hardship policy, including extending a freeze on penalty interest.
According to a council report, as of 8 June 2021, $29.3 million in rates was in arrears, a 15 per cent increase above the level at 30 June 2020.
Approximately 21,080 ratepayers are in some form of arrears.
At a special council meeting on Tuesday 29 June, Casey’s administrators resolved to continue to provide relief to struggling ratepayers.
The council has now extended its freeze on penalty interest on outstanding rates to 30 September 2021, and will not pursue legal action on outstanding rates until October 2021.
The council will also make administrative updates to its Rate Payment and Financial Hardship Policy, including consolidating it with the current Overpayment of Rates Policy, expanding the focus on the need to have a stronger customer-centric focus on the circumstances when hardship needs to be considered, and clarifying the delegation limits for officers’ ability to waive or defer amounts in line with the finding of a recent internal audit.
The policy will be released in draft form for public consultation in July, with a report due back to the council in August.
The City of Casey is also seeking further clarification on a State Government investigation into how Victorian councils deal with ratepayers experiencing hardship.
Administrator Cameron Boardman moved an amendment to the officer’s report at the meeting in response to a Victorian Ombudsman’s report into how councils across the state deal with residents who can’t afford their rates.
Mr Boardman moved that the council note the preliminary review of the Ombudsman’s report conducted by council officers, which may be subject to further evaluation by the State Government.
“What council officers have done is considered [the Ombudsman’s] recommendations in a very constructive and appropriate manner,” he said, adding that this would help aid clarity and consistency for ratepayers.
He said that while the council believed that some of the Ombudsman’s recommendations would provide a best-practice framework for councils on ratepayer hardship, “there needs to be further analysis”, with council officers disagreeing with some of the State Government’s recommendations.
While waiting for that analysis, the council would “take on board” some of the principles of the report, he said.
“We are not in any way out of the circumstances associated with Covid-19,” he added.
“We fully understand the impact this is having on some ratepayers in the municipality and want to work to come up with a middle ground.”
Meanwhile, the Revenue and Rating Plan 2021 to 2025 was approved unanimously.
The administrators encouraged anyone experiencing financial difficulties around paying their rates to make contact with the council as soon as possible.