THE state government commission of inquiry into Ararat Rural City Council will look at a wide variety of testimony in its assessment of proposed changes to rates.
Commission chair Frances O’Brien QC said the inquiry’s terms of reference allowed it to examine more than just the proposal to abolish differential rates.
“The minister has asked us to look into the proposal itself, how it was arrived at and the consultative process, as that is a requirement under the Local Government Act,” she said.
“We’ll look at the consultative process both prior to the strategy being proposed and since then.
“The minister has also asked as to look into some governance issues: how they processed the strategy and how governance impacted on that.”
The proposed rating strategy called for increasing rates paid by farmers while offering varying discounts to residential, commercial and industrial properties.
Acting Minister for Local Government Lily D’Ambrosio described Ms O’Brien as having significant legal experience and understanding of local government, and she recently served on the commission of inquiry into the Geelong council.
The inquiry held a public hearing in Ararat on Wednesday.
Ms O’Brien said the inquiry would consider evidence from a variety of sources.
“We have looked at evidence from councillors, from various members of staff, from farmers and from people in town in private hearings,” she said.
“We are looking at, and have received, substantial materials that document the process that council has undertaken.
“We have had substantial submissions from various individuals and groups about what they think should happen with the rating strategy and governance issues at the council.”
The inquiry is being closely watched across the state as it could set a precedent for other municipalities.
“These are challenges for all councils, because of the financial constraints on councils and the increasing obligations to communities,” Ms O’Brien said.
“How this inquiry concludes will have significant ramifications, potentially, for other councils.
“I should say that Ararat is unique. It’s a unique environment with this large and beautiful town with many services and historic buildings.
“It’s unusual when compared with other councils who don’t have a substantial rural environment with a large sophisticated town.”
A number of farmers and former Ararat Mayor Fay Hull had criticised the concept of council rates itself.
There were calls during testimony to overhaul the ‘antiquated’ system as it did not adapt to a person’s capacity to pay, unlike income tax or capital gains.
Ms O’Brien said it wasn’t the inquiry’s direct objective to consider reforming the concept of council rates.
“It may be something we make comment on, but we would not spend a lot of time on it,” she said.
“Some of the issues raised here do give cause to a wider consideration, and the Local Government Minister will have to grapple with those issues.”