Is our Noosa budget a ‘magic pudding’?

Like Norman Lindsay’s Children’s classic The Magic Pudding, there are some who view our Noosa Council budget as an inexhaustible supply.  Eat all you like, we can make some more.  

This time last year I was looking forward to having input into Noosa Council’s budget. But after opening the Council’s new budget participation tool, I found it was really designed to let me get some practice at adding and subtracting so the total didn’t change.  This is called The Illusion of Choice.

In other words, if you want extra funding somewhere, you have to reduce it somewhere else. If those are the rules for us, why doesn’t Council follow them too? They obviously use a different tool that allows them to take extra from us every year.

Welcome to the Magic Pudding budget.

When the Council put out their draft budget last year for consultation, we saw a separate fire rate (commonly called a fire levy) across the shire for the first time. We already pay an annual State emergency levy which provides funding for fire fighters and their equipment. It seems staff just wanted more funds for better management of public property.

I wonder whether they looked at dropping a less important program that was past its use-by date. If that wasn’t possible, then why wasn’t it funded from general rates? It’s normal business of Council, and that’s what general rates are for.   

“Seventy five percent of ratepayers will see a general rate increase of no more than CPI of 1.5%.”

Mayor Clare Stewart. 30th June, 2021.

The reason was revealed when Council adopted the budget. We were told that the majority of ratepayers would pay a general rate increase of (only) 1.4%. Which doesn’t tell anyone how much extra they had to pay, because it ignores the increase in separate rates.  (I wonder why we can’t also ignore separate rates on our rate notice.) The fact is that a large proportion of Noosa ratepayers copped at least a 2.9% increase in rates last year. Noosa Council now imposes four separate rates as well as the general rate. 

Better transparency? I don’t think so.

Now I’m wondering if Council has yet another separate rate in mind for the budget they are working on right now. Social housing perhaps?

Maybe one day Council will have enough separate rates that they can do away with general rates altogether.  (No, please don’t take that seriously)

I also wonder why our neighbouring Gympie Council has no separate rates at all. Maybe they don’t understand the PR magic of introducing separate rates, a rate increase they can pretend doesn’t really count as a cost to ratepayers.

Council is now half way through their budget process and Councillors and staff will have submitted their wish lists for next year’s budget. I imagine they will mostly ask for more resources and more staff, even though they’ve had trouble lately keeping the ones they have. 

I wonder whether those wish lists can be released to the community as part of the consultation process. That would be a first, and show that election promises about transparency were genuine. It would be very popular with ratepayers.

Last year’s budget consultation started on 1 March. I assume this year it will start soon, but perhaps they’re not ready. It appears Council has not yet done the review of last year’s budget consultation  process that they resolved to do last June. 

Here are a few issues we need to look out for in the next Council budget, whether or not we are consulted.

1. Some rate reductions for those who own short term accommodation properties. Those owners were hit with a blunt instrument last year, all treated the same, even though many have been operating trouble free for many years. For example, there is a huge difference in potential problems caused by properties in a locally managed complex compared to houses let online by owners not even living in Noosa.

2. There was a State Government unimproved property revaluation across Noosa Shire last year, the first since 2018. There are suggestions that residential unimproved values have increased by an average of 50%, commercial property not much at all. The general rate and the separate fire rate are based on these valuations.

With such huge changes in valuations, there will be big variations in those rates for some ratepayers. Council will blame the valuation change over which they have no control. But they can control the total amount they plan to raise from ratepayers. The valuation change is no excuse to rate gouge, but  ratepayers will be watching.

3. Or what about another levy? The fire levy followed the previous Council’s introduction of the transport levy to fund the Transport Strategy. With form like that, watch out for more levies. Despite being told early last year when budget consultation was being promoted that Council has ‘a clear vision for the future’, we haven’t seen what that vision is. We’re more likely to see further knee-jerk reactions to issues that arise.

It seems that if there’s a problem, even a national or global one, the Council thinks they have to solve it. Worse, they usually think they can. The latest example is housing. 

4. When the draft budget is adopted in June, do not take much notice of the Council-provided figures for the rate increase. Last year the new budget included a revenue increase of about 7% in like-for-like net rates, levies and charges. Not surprising when there was an increase of 8% included for employee costs. Yet the PR headline announcement from Council was about a general rate increase of 1.4%.

5. Keep an eye on proposed employee costs and proposed additional permanent staff positions. In recent years there has been a huge increase in ‘temporary’ project staff to about 50. As long as Councillors sign off on a large staff cost allocation in the budget, temporary staff are appointed without approval from Council because ‘funds are available in the budget’.  

I wonder who suggested the big increases in rate revenues  last year? Watch out for more of the same this year. One of the current Councillors has been known to suggest the best time to go for a big increase in rates is before an election year budget.

That brings us to the present. Are we about to see a transparent, responsible budget, or a magic pudding that we all pay too much for?


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