Rural families question services as rate hikes hurt regional business

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Lawson Geddes’s family has run his central Queensland cattle property near Shoalwater Bay for more than 140 years.

He loves the rural lifestyle, far away from populated areas.

“We take care of ourselves and always have,” he said. “We like it that way.”

Given the relative isolation of his 10,000-hectare property, Mr Geddes said he’s had little to do with the local council in Livingstone Shire, north of Rockhampton.

So, he was shocked when he opened his half-yearly rates notice to a bill for $41,605.

“It had jumped about $16,000, about 24 per cent,” he said.

“So now we’re paying about $84,000 a year for rates for the local council.”

Mr Geddes said he had always understood the need to provide for the community, but his latest payments had him wondering what he was paying for. 

A man in a wide-brimmed hat and farming clothes
Lawson Geddes says local councils can’t use ratepayers to fill their funding “black hole”.(ABC Capricornia: Pat Heagney)

“I think if you’re in the shire you’ve definitely got to pay rates, but it’s been a bit exorbitant,” he said.

“I’ve got to pay $84,000 before I feed a cow, before I feed myself, before I pay anyone to come and work for me.

“I’m basically running a paddock of bulls to pay the council.”

How do councils determine rates?

Livingstone Shire Mayor Andy Ireland said local councils needed to levy rates from landholders to provide services for their communities.

He said individual rates were based heavily on property valuations.  

“We have a differential ratings system, so we have lots of different categories based on their purpose and valuation,” Mr Ireland said. 

“Then for each of these categories, a rate in the dollar is applied, or a cent in the dollar is applied.”

Mr Ireland said this process meant it was difficult to keep rates low when land valuations increased.

A man smiles at the camera, light blue, long sleeve button up shirt, stripy tie, beach in the background.
Livingstone Shire Mayor Andy Ireland says it’s difficult to keep council rates low as property valuations increase.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

The Queensland Valuer-General released its latest land valuations for 30 local government areas in March.

Livingstone Shire increased by 30.9 per cent overall since the last valuation in 2020, but some areas rose by up to 60 per cent.

The Valuer-General noted “rural lands have generally had significant increases, due to the strength in beef commodity prices, as well as a low interest rate environment”.

“We did our very best to try and get that dollar down so the impact wasn’t as bad as it potentially could have been,” Mr Ireland said.

“But in order to raise the revenue we need to provide services across the board, those rates in the dollar are what we determined we have to charge.

“Certainly, a lot of that is beyond our control.”

Rural returns

Mr Geddes said despite his enormous council contributions, his property received few council services. 

“We get no rubbish services, we look after our own water and everything like that,” he said.

“They used to come and spend a month bringing gravel and doing up the road.

“But I can’t remember the last time they carted gravel up here.”

A typical dirt road in rural Australia
Lawson Geddes says the dirt road to his house is poorly maintained by council.(Supplied)

He said he was worried rates would continue to increase as agricultural property prices rose. 

“They always seem to go up and I don’t know where it stops,” he said.

“If you ran a business, you couldn’t just keep putting your prices up, or no-one would go to your shop.

“It’s the same with the council, you can’t just use ratepayers to fill in your black hole.”

The mayor said he felt sympathy for rural residents as property prices drove rates higher. 

AgForce CEO Michael Guerin with local farmers Bonnie Maynard and Lachlan Collins.
Mr Guerin says rural ratepayers should not be disadvantaged because of where they live.

“They clearly don’t get water and sewerage, but historically that’s recognised through the fact we try to manipulate that rate in the dollar,” he said.

“They are able to take advantage of all the services that the town offers in terms of community facilities like libraries, town halls, outdoor entertainment centres and all those sorts of things.

“I guess it just comes down to a choice of where they live.”

Agforce chief executive Michael Guerin said ratepayers shouldn’t be disadvantaged by where they chose to make a living. 

For the council, however, it’s a balancing act.

“It’s a message we quite often get, ‘What do we get for our rates money?’,” Mr Ireland said.

“But you ask any mayor, they will all get the same question. It’s a perennial question, a perennial dilemma.”

Rural business toll

Mr Guerin says consecutive years of rate rises had taken a toll on rural business. 

“You think about a family trying to manage a small business in town or producers, a lift in fixed costs like that is hard to swallow,” he said.

“Ultimately, you’re hurting those smaller communities.”

But he said he understood the importance of a strong local council.

“I don’t talk to any member or any landholder who doesn’t want a strong local government,” he said.

“It’s a really, really important conversation to have, about equity and sharing of rates, how we can share that for a strong community.”

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