LEGAL advice regarding farm rates across the Horsham Rural City municipality has provided conflicting guidance.
Horsham council and the Victorian Farmers Federation both sought legal advice after debate around the council’s proposed 11.8 per cent rate rise for farmers.
That proposal, among the features of the council’s latest Budget, was approved at a meeting on June 25 but councillors David Grimble and John Robinson continue to question the decision.
The legal advice to the council said it would defy the Local Government Act and could face legal action if the council chose to rework its Budget after the submission process, without community consultation.
Meanwhile, the legal advice to the farmer’s federation said the council could resubmit its Budget to the state government and there was the process that allowed them to do so after the cut-off date of June 30.
Crs Grimble and Robinson put forward two separate motions, at the council’s latest meeting on Monday, calling to adjust the Budget.
The pair said their motions would achieve an even rate distribution across the municipality that was fair and equitable. Both motions were defeated.
The motions came in response to a petition from Wimmera farmers calling on the council to adjust the rating differential to ensure each rateable category shared the rate burden.
Farmers packed the gallery at Monday night’s meeting and were vocal – and subsequently warned – in response to councillor comments.
The council’s corporate services director Graeme Harrison recommended the council note the legal advice and defer any amendment to the rating structure to next year’s Budget.
He said the council should note the impact that farm valuations had on rates and reaffirm its commitment to undertaking a detailed review of its rates strategy prior to the 2019-20 Budget.
Cr Grimble read an email from farmer’s federation president David Jochinke to the council, which discussed the legal advice from HWL Ebsworth Lawyers.
Cr Grimble said the contradictory legal advice showed the advice was an opinion and was subjective. He said the council had the capacity to address the unfair and inequitable rate distribution.
“It disappoints me that council did not exercise its political will and might to do that,” he said.
“Instead we have fallen behind some very light legal advice and we have not debated the issue in a way that is satisfactory.”
He said this was the first Budget he has failed to accept during his time as a councillor because it was “grossly” unfair and unsustainable.
“Behind the principles of natural justice and all the principles of fairness, I cannot accept the resolution of council. I understand council made a decision and I accept that, but I do not support that,” he said.
Cr Robinson said the adopted rating strategy was “unfair and unreasonable”.
“Council is standing behind legal advice and saying there’s nothing we can do, but the legal advice is around changing the rate differentials and Cr Grimble or myself aren’t proposing to change the differentials,” he said.
Cr Mark Radford said a “one-size fits all” approach was not fair and was “ridiculous” when there was a wide variation in the property valuations for the farming and residential sectors.
He said to make changes outside the budgetary process was not good governance.
Cr Les Power said changes would come in 12 months’ time when the council could sit down and work through the process. He said councillors did not need to make a quick, assertive decision at that meeting.
“The last two weeks has been a shambles,” he said. “A decision was made on June 25 as a council. It was voted on by seven councillors and it was carried.”
Cr Power said Crs Grimble and Robinson were fighting for 10 per cent of the population but he was there for everyone.
Crs Grimble and Robinson called a point of order to Cr Power’s statement.
Cr Grimble said the comment was “naive” and “inappropriate”.