Shire needs to do more

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times

The Shire says about 100 ratepayers have requested special arrangements to pay their rates this year, with “a handful” of strugglers provided information about other options.

But rates waivers were still not on the menu.

The Shire of Augusta-Margaret River introduced a new hardship policy in the wake of COVID-19 to help business and residential ratepayers unable to cover their annual bill, which was criticised by business operators and some residents for not doing enough.

Critics have also questioned the lack of detail around stimulus funding arrangements and whether more than $1 million left in the Shire’s Community Care Fund would be open to applicants technically living outside of the region.

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In August, the council approved two stimulus funding programs — Economic Stimulus and Community Resilience grants — backed by the original $2 million emergency fund established in March and drawn from the Shire’s waste management reserves.

Shire corporate and community services manager James Shepherd said no rates relief measures would draw on the care fund.

Details of successful applicants were not provided, in line with confidentiality measures, but grant program recipients would be published online in mid-November.

Ratepayers who asked not to be named because they were also grant applicants told the Times the remaining care funds risked going to outside organisations which did business within the shire.

Mr Shepherd said the Economic Stimulus grants were “open to applicants (which include businesses) located within the boundaries of the shire of Augusta-Margaret River”.

“The intent is for funded projects to provide a direct benefit to the local economy and community,” he said.

On further questioning, Mr Shepherd confirmed the second funding stream could be accessed by outside agencies.

“The Community Resilience grants are open to incorporated community-based volunteer, not-for-profit organisations and registered businesses for projects that take place within the shire of Augusta-Margaret River boundaries,” he said.

“The above entities don’t need to be based in the shire, but the project needs to take place here and deliver benefits within our shire.”

Chamber president Melissa d’Ath said she was still waiting on the fine details from the Shire.

“There are a lot of businesses that are struggling and need our ongoing support,” she said.

“The main street traders are carrying the whole burden of the main street makeover.

“Very few landlords are offering discounted rents, property managers are not offering reduced fees, and the Shire seems reluctant to officially acknowledge possible rate waivers for businesses that are suffering.”

Mr Shepherd urged struggling retailers and residents to contact the Shire to discuss their circumstances.

Shire president Ian Earl said although there was “very little inquiry” about hardship relief, he expected to see more in the second quarter of this financial year.

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