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Councillor Indifference Trumps COVID Compassion in Maribyrnong

In less than five minutes, with no debate and great self-congratulations Maribyrnong City Council has approved a measly $6.2m COVID ‘relief’ package which offers rebates to commercial ratepayers and only defers payments for residents.

At the same time Councillors refused to divert $4m cash from the state government to add to the rate relief package.

They voted unanimously to spend the money as originally intended, refurbishing Footscray Wharf. So Simpson Construction Pty Ltd gets the $4m (taxpayers’ funds) sitting in the bank along with another $4m of ratepayers’ funds.

According to Councillors it’s more important that in this time of crisis, funds collected from taxpayers and ratepayers are funnelled to big business to build things instead of being rebated back to where they came from.

While local neighbours and community groups in Maribyrnong are cooking meals for each other doing grocery shopping, propping bears in windows, offering video exercise classes and helping each other out, while residents are buying take-away coffees and take-away meals to help local traders, Maribyrnong City Councillors are in their own little Town Hall world.

Sarah Carter, Martin Zakharov, Megan Bridger-Darling, Cuc Lam, Simon Crawford and Gina Huynh voted unanimously for a double-whammy rates burden for residents next year. (Mia McGregor was an apology from the meeting.)

But traders get a rebate on rates for one quarter. Hardly generous because there are less than 3,000 traders.

And the total package cost divided by total ratepayers = $147. And most of that is only deferred not forgiven.

Yet the Local Government Act hardship provisions allows Councils to waive rates under exceptional circumstances. Obviously COVID-19 lockdown doesn’t meet Maribyrnong City Council’s definition of exceptional circumstances.

So with $4m cash from the state Government (ie taxpayers/ratepayers) sitting in the bank, Councillors refused to touch it because they said it would be ‘fiscally irresponsible.’

This from a council that has spent: $400,000 on consultants for plans for a new library, $900,000 on consultants for a Town Hall refurbishment strategy, $236,000 on signage for a Park, $30,000 for a seat on a local tourism board, $340,000 salary for the CEO, $25,000 annually for one community satisfaction survey etc etc - you get the idea.

But now, when their residents are impoverished and ill and isolated, they decide it’s finally time to be fiscally responsible.

Their idea of fiscally responsible is simply that there’s about $6.2m in wiggle money in the Council budget (officially called the underlying operating surplus) so that’s all they’re prepared to ‘spend’ on ‘rate relief.’ But it’s not real spending because it’s not money that’s actually going anywhere. It’s certainly not going to residents.

I won’t go into detail about the furphy accounting terms of ‘spending’ not being real spending and the costs of foregoing revenue etc, because it would make your head spin.

In simple terms, Council operates with ratepayers’ (mostly residential ratepayers) funds and now, when ratepayers need that money more than Council does, Councillors are refusing to give it back.

I honestly thought that Councillors were all set to approve the Wharf contract simply because they were overwhelmed by 637 pages of the Agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting and had overlooked the possibility of using the funds for COVID-19 rate relief.

I thought if it was pointed out to them they’d realise it was a good idea and be compassionate and flexible and responsive.

I was wrong.

They knew exactly what they were doing.

In a time of crisis the Council’s bottom line is far more important than their people.

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