From the Newsroom

From the report to council: Figure 1 – Location of the 5 land parcels (waterway), proposed to be reclassified, shaded grey & red.

Refunds for ‘erroneous’ charges, but no cake

Geoff Helisma|

One hundred and fifty-two canal-front properties in Yamba can make an application to Clarence Valley Council (CVC) for a refund of their pontoon licencing fees … provided they remove the pontoon.

A report was tabled at the July 27 CVC meeting, following a “request from a ratepayer that tenure fees charged for use of Council land be refunded” – however, CVC staff recommended to “not refund the fees paid … as a private benefit was received”.

The “erroneous” charging of fees was “identified” in 2016 when CVC began its property rationalisation process, to meet the NSW Government’s Fit for the Future requirements.

“It was found that actions and resolutions of the former pre-amalgamation councils for the area were erroneous in relation to the classification of certain public lands [as Community] … that were intended to be classified as Operational,” the report to council stated.

Staff advised councillors, “On realising the error in 2016, CVC did not request removal of the water recreation structures, as they were not permissible.”

Five of the 163 council-owned public land parcels proposed for reclassification, from Community to Operational, were canals in Yamba.

At the July 27 CVC meeting, five of the valley’s councillors supported advising those residents that they “will receive a full refund of lease/licence fees paid … entirely at their own discretion”, if they “choose to remove their water recreation structure and provide a certificate of removal by December 31, 2021”.

Cr Richie Williamson proposed the successful motion, however, councillors Ellem, Novak and Toms argued that the affected landholders were entitled to a refund, free of any encumbrance.

Cr Williamson’s motion included “recognising [that] a pre-amalgamation administrative error has occurred where some water recreation structures were, in good faith, granted a lease or licence on community title land” and “advising affected owners of the error, noting that the process of reclassification of the community land to operational land to allow for a lease or licence is underway”.

His motion also “noted that Council proposes no other action, other than the reclassification of the land from community to operational, [which] will then allow for the proper lease/licence arrangements to continue”.

Pontoon Charges – What the councillors said

During debate, Cr Williamson said, “this motion does not force anybody to do anything” and pointed out that “anyone who feels aggrieved or dudded” would “now have a process” to claim a refund.

“But they can’t have their cake and eat it too … they have received a private benefit on a public parcel of land.”

Cr Peter Ellem described the idea of making people remove their structures, in order to receive a refund, as “draconian”.

“It’s leaving something … hanging over them, and I would never do that to a ratepayer,” he said.

Cr Andrew Baker said, “For me, there is something in [Cr Williamson’s motion] for everyone; 99 per cent [of affected landholders] will say they received a benefit.”

Cr Karen Toms asked, “We fix it by saying you had a benefit?

“Now you have to take away your structures if you want your money back?

“So now it’s their fault, too?

“Out of good faith, we should offer these 152 residents a two-year moratorium on licence fees … we made a mistake and still continued to charge.”

Cr Arthur Lysaught reckoned councillors advocating no-strings refunds were “navel gazing” and said some questions asked prior to debate were “looking for a gotcha moment with staff”.

“It’s not the first occasion … it’s abhorrent to me.”

Cr Debrah Novak said the council “needs to act in good faith by giving a refund … so we can build a stronger relationship with the community”.

Mayor Jim Simmons said, “There may be an entitlement [due for those landholders], but the council has acted in good faith.

“They’ve enjoyed a benefit and the weekly amount [of the licence fee] was not a large amount; but, annually, over the years it could amount to [something] … that’s all I want to say at this stage.”

In his right of reply, Cr Williamson said supporting his motion would be “a fair outcome for all of our ratepayers” and that “the inflammatory words in debate by Cr Toms are incorrect”.

“Blaming ratepayers is an untruth; nobody in this place has blamed the ratepayers – [most are] blissfully unaware there is a problem and, I believe, 99 per cent will carry on with the status quo,” he said.

Cr Clancy declared a non-significant, non-pecuniary interest and did not participate in the item.

Continue on to ‘ No Cake, No Pay ‘

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