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Hardship policy headed for the rocks

Geoff Helisma | Clarence Valley Council (CVC) is proposing substantial changes to its hardship policy: the draft policy is on exhibition and submissions can be made up until 4pm on Friday June 20. Councillors voted unanimously, without debate, to support the council officer’s recommendation to put the policy and the associated debt recovery policy on exhibition for 28 days, noting that if “no public comment that changes the intent of the policy [is received] it be adopted” as exhibited. Perhaps the most significant change is the deletion of explanations for the various, relevant Local Government Act NSW 1993 sections: 564, 568, 567, 577, and 601, which advise a prospective applicant how each section is applied. The draft policy, instead, just refers to the relevant sections without explanation. For example, under the heading, Assistance by Periodical Payment Arrangements, section 564 outlines of how “council may enter into a formal agreement with a ratepayer eligible for alternative periodical payments for due and payable rates and charges.“A periodical payment agreement will be offered in accordance with Council’s Debt Recovery Policy.” Under the heading, Assistance by writing off accrued interest and costs, section 567 states that “accrued interest on rates or charges payable by a person may be written off … [if] the person was unable to pay the rates or charges when they became due for reasons beyond the person’s control, or … is unable to pay accrued interest for reasons beyond the person’s control, or payment of the accrued interest would cause the person hardship”. Under the heading, Assistance to extend pensioner concession to avoid hardship, section 577 “enables Council to make an order deeming certain persons who are jointly liable with an eligible pensioner(s) or solely liable, but who are not themselves eligible, to be eligible pensioners for the purpose of a mandatory reduction in rates and charges to avoid hardship”. Under the heading, Assistance due to General Revaluation of the Local Government Area, section 601 “provides that where any ratepayer who suffers substantial hardship as the consequence of the making and levying of a rate following a new valuation, may apply to Council for rate relief … in the first year new valuations are used to calculate”. However, while the existing policy rules out considering “hardship applications under [the section 601], as valuations are independently determined by the NSW Valuer General”, the draft policy states “ratepayers seeking hardship as a result of Valuation Changes are encouraged to seek appeal to the NSW Valuers General under the provisions of the Valuation of Land Act NSW 1916”. Meanwhile, the draft policy does retain a commitment to “considering applications of hardship on merit and by applying the principles of fairness, integrity, confidentiality and compliance with statutory requirements”. Differing from the existing policy, the draft hardship policy makes allowances to appeal in writing within 30 days of an application being rejected. The draft policy can be viewed online on CVC’s website in the ‘currently on exhibition’ page; and the existing policy can be found on the council’s policy register page, located via the ‘Council & Engagement’ tab on CVC’s homepage.