Council juggles virus relief

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times

Councillors will decide next week on the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River’s future support for residents doing it tough as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of this year’s 2020-2021 budget adoption, members will review a new hardship policy as well as two community resilience funding programs.

The decisions come as the council moves to lock in a rates freeze for the coming financial year, with the expected $22.45 million rates income likely to take a hit from the pandemic.

Although the council has all but ruled out rates waivers — with the business and accommodation sectors calling for more substantial relief — the hardship policy, if endorsed, would apply to ratepayers with evidence of financial stress brought on by COVID-19.

About $1.5 million of the Community Care Fund established at the start of the pandemic remained, with about $406,000 allocated to 12 projects so far.

Although the Times understands care fund money would be set aside to cover deferred rates, the draft policy said payment plans would be sought, but with interest, fees and debt recovery suspended.

“Hardship determination will require the provision of the specified evidence to support an application,” the Shire report noted.

“It is a reasonable community expectation, as we deal with the effects of the pandemic, that those with the capacity to pay rates will continue to do so. The policy is not intended to provide rate relief to ratepayers who are not able to evidence financial hardship ... (as) a direct result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ratepayer’s financial circumstances.”

The policy would be reviewed next year and applied to this year’s rates and charges as well as outstanding amounts from 2019-2020.

Chief executive Stephanie Addison-Brown would have ultimate oversight for the program which promised flexibility and additional communication for applicants.

Criteria for eligibility included recent underemployment or job losses and the effects of illness during the COVID-19 pandemic, including those forced to act as carers.

Business operators previously told the Times few would wish to disclose private financial circumstances, but the Shire policy promised discretion and confidentiality.

Shire support would also take the form of Sustainable Economy and Building Better Communities grants. The economic grants would “sustainably build local employment and business success” post-COVID-19. Criteria included new or improved business services offering jobs and using local suppliers with “positive social or environmental” goals tying in to the Shire’s community strategic plan. Applicants would match funds or seek extra external funding. The community grants would “support long-term strategic community projects that enhance sustainability, build resilience and develop our community’s ability to withstand ongoing disruption and major shocks”.

Businesses, community groups and not-for-profits could apply for the money aimed at resilience-building measures through local investment, with fund-matching also encouraged. Possible projects included services responding to community needs and addressing sustainability and climate change.

The lifeline follows calls from the newly formed Augusta-Margaret River Community Resilience Alliance for a dedicated fund. Grants open in August for an October allocation, with a possible second round next year. Programs will be funded from the Community Care Package in addition to existing community development money.

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