The local business community has voiced disquiet at news the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River aims to put up rates by an average of 4.75 per cent this year. The council endorsed the decision for advertising last week citing the need to bulwark its finances against growing demand and rising costs. At the same time, veteran former City of Perth chief executive Frank Edwards, who helmed the City for 10 years and has been a Margaret River ratepayer for longer, said key financial indicators and underspending supported a lower increase. “There will continue to be underspends in the budget areas affected,” he said. “If you have not got all the people you need to deliver, why still prepare aspirational budgets?” Margaret River Chamber of Commerce president Miriam Bailey said the rise added to the pressure on residents and the business sector. “In the wake of significant (interest) rate rises, a rental crisis and increased cost of living, it’s unfortunate to see the Shire compounding financial pressure on households and businesses with a significant rate rise,” she said. Chamber executive Annie McFie said any increases in commercial rates were passed on to businesses. “There is a misconception that wealthy landlords pay commercial rates,” she said. “That is not the case. Rates are passed on to businesses in the form of gross variable outgoings. “Everyone is feeling the pressure of rising costs and we fear that the continual financial burden for small, locally owned businesses will result in some of our favourite local shops closing down.” Business operators told the Times they weren’t yet recovered from increased costs and labour shortages, with inevitable rent increases another headache they could do without. Former chamber president Pierre Every and accountant Julien Sanderson, who were vocal about last year’s 4 per cent hike, expressed consternation. Mr Sanderson said the 4.75 per cent increase was “hefty” but ratepayers remained fortunate the rise was below the rate of inflation. Mr Every said big growth in rateable properties should offset such a big jump. “Our shire is one of the fastest-growing shires in Australia, so new developments are significant,” he said. “You only have to drive around Cowaramup and Witchcliffe to see this firsthand. “As I said last year, it is too easy just to increase rates and not look at how to improve productivity, improve efficiencies, and review systems with a focus on reducing expenditure.” Business owner Lloyd Shepherdson also echoed calls to tighten the costs of the Shire’s bureaucracy. However, after the pause in jumps during the pandemic, he saw last year’s rise as reasonable and this year’s proposed boost below CPI as “acceptable”. Accountant and former councillor Brian Middleton said councillors had to be responsible in their management despite risking unpopularity. “With a local government imperative to retain surpluses as a matter of financial prudence, I believe council is acting responsibly,” he said. Shire president Paula Cristoffanini said councillors were very aware of cost-of-living pressures. “However, cost increases are also putting pressure on the Shire’s finances,” she said. “The cost of providing services, facilities and maintaining roads and infrastructure have gone up considerably. “Council have made the rate increase proposal with a view to balancing a local inflation rate estimated to be around 5.8 per cent for the present year and the expected growth of rateable properties in our shire.” Mr Edwards said a $450,000 shortfall in staff wages and undelivered projects, as well as average budget surpluses of $3.6 million during the past three years necessitated a rethink for the sake of households doing it tough.