By Jess Baker
Southern Downs Regional Council has adopted what it calls an “honest, no-frills” budget for 2021-22.
In a statement released on Wednesday 23 June, the council described its budget decisions as a way to help the Southern Downs region recover economically from drought, bushfires, and a pandemic.
Southern Downs Mayor Vic Pennisi said the council finds itself in “the perfect financial storm” post Covid-19, and so it must prioritise core business.
“This budget aims to contain costs, fix operating deficits in the key services of water and waste, and detail a plan to address ageing infrastructure,” Cr Pennisi said.
“And, it is not all bad news. This budget supports community, cultural and environmental initiatives with over $1.1 million and delivers one of the biggest capital works programs to date including $5.5 million for flood repair.”
The budget takes into consideration the council’s plans – and duty – to spend $30 million over the next five years on renewing sewerage infrastructure.
Wastewater charges will see an increase of 1.5 percent and general rates will increase, on average, by 1.3 percent.
“In the rates space, we have acknowledged that recent land valuations by the Valuer General may translate to potentially large increases for some residents and to smooth the impact of these changes, a new rating category for Small Crops has been introduced, which will limit the rates increase in Small Crops and Agriculture to no more than 50 percent,” Cr Pennisi said.
Waste will now be recognised as a stand-alone business unit of SDRC, as water and waste water already is.
“There is no silver bullet and we need to bring our water and sewerage infrastructure up to date,” Cr Pennisi said.
“(The) council currently charges three different waste charges depending on location and one of the measures being implemented over the next two years is to bring together the entire region under one charge.”
Cr Pennisi said the council’s loss in waste was “in the vicinity” of $3 million to $4 million each year and it had no choice but to “stop the bleed”.
A new Landfill Access Charge of $30 per rateable assessment per year will be charged equally across the region, the Commercial Waste Disposal Fee will increase to $120 per tonne as well as the State Government Levy, and Kerbside Collection fees will be equalised across the region to a single fee.
The council will also reduce operating hours at manned landfill sites, which is expected to save it $380,000 each year.
Speaking of the budget, the mayor referred to a ‘Brain Trust’ – comprised of a number of stakeholders including state government representatives – which the council plans to use to identify ways to increase its income, its service delivery and put downward pressure on rates.
“We are currently collaborating with our neighbours exploring common inhibitors and finding ways to combine resources to better manage what we find difficult to do alone,” he said.
The council has also further reduced service charges and rates on newly developed blocks of land and said it has long considered developer holding costs to be an impediment to growing the local housing stock.
The discount developers receive on rates prior to selling blocks of land will increase from 40 percent to 70 percent.
SDRC has committed $53 million across 109 capital works programs, with most funding directed to general works and water and sewerage.
Just over $1 million will go towards supporting local community groups – nearly one quarter of which has been committed to Warwick Art Gallery and Stanthorpe Regional Art Gallery.