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Big miners’ lower Town rates deal is a ‘joke’

Sam JonesNorth West Telegraph
Roy Hill iron ore project. Roy Hill mine & port, April, 2016.
Camera IconRoy Hill iron ore project. Roy Hill mine & port, April, 2016. Credit: supplied by Roy Hill

Local organisations have joined in the chorus of voices that have slammed the Town of Port Hedland’s decision to reduce the payable back-rates charged to big mining companies.

Passed at last week’s ordinary council meeting, the retrospective rates payable for the past four years were slashed to 25 per cent of the original value, from $45.6 million to $11.4 million, in a move Port Hedland Ratepayers Association president Arnold Carter said was reprehensible and showed a clear disregard for the residents of Port Hedland, who were slugged some of the highest residential rates in the State.

“It’s a joke to suggest we give a discount on these rates,” he said.

“One of the reasons given for the discount is concern over the businesses’ ability to pay; but when a resident isn’t able to pay their rates, they are simply charged more in interest. Are we really going to pretend these businesses are unable to pay their rates?”

Another reason given for the discount was the companies involved — Fortescue Metals Group, BHP and Roy Hill — already contribute to town prosperity through donations.

Nationals Member for North West Central Vince Catania was outraged by the decision.

Despite not being his electorate, he said the precedent set by the Town’s decision was disappointing.

“Just because voluntary contributions to the Town are made, doesn’t mean you get off paying your rates,” he said.

“The contributions are seen by many as the companies doing their fair share of work for the community but if they’re let off their rates, is it really fair.”

It all started from a rates audit conducted two years ago by the previous council, which found leases on crown land and mining operations under State agreements could be rated when they previously were not.

Under the Local Government Act, the Town had the right to charge retrospectively for up to five years from the date of submission, however having waited a year, only four years could now be charged retrospectively.

Former Town Mayor Camilo Blanco, said he came under incredible pressure from State Government not to pursue the rate charges.

“The McGowan Government was adamant we should not charge the rates,” he said.

“I initially chased State Government and Minister for Mines Bill Johnston for help, as a Town council like ours were hardly well positioned to go up against the biggest industry in Australia.

“They wouldn’t have a bar of it. Rather than helping, they urged us to not charge the rates.”

Mr Blanco said there had been no community consultation in the decision process, with the Town’s agenda listing the only stakeholders who were consulted as BHP, FMG and Roy Hill.

Town Commissioner Fred Riebeling said the discount was not a matter of undercutting residents, but working with business for the best possible outcome.

“We’re not just going to charge the full amount of these businesses with the mindset of skimming every dollar we can,” he said.

“We’re a wealthy council. We don’t need to resort to greed and overcharging when many of these companies already contribute to the town with donations.”

He said two out of the three major companies consulted had agreed the 25 per cent back-rate was fair, with one flat out rejecting the decision.

Port Hedland Progress Association president Jim Henneberry disagreed with the commissioner, saying any discount should be passed to residents, not to industry.

“We have the preliminary budget coming up; wouldn’t it be wonderful for Hedland residents to not see a rise in their rates,” he said.

“I already pay $5000, almost $100 a week in rates for my small property. You could get away with paying less in Cottesloe.”

As a result of the rates audit findings, other Pilbara councils have started to investigate whether they can make similar charges, with the Shire of Ashburton deciding to charge for ports used by Chevron in Onslow and Barrow Island.

Shire of Ashburton president Kerry White would not say how much the council was receiving, but said the cash would help the local government.

When asked about whether retrospective rate payments would be charged to Chevron, Mrs White said they were not pursuing them.

“We’re not going to do that, that’s not on as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

“It creates a bad relationship.”

Other major Hedland businesses who received relief on their back-rates payable include Sims Group Australia, Atlas Iron, Qube Logistics and Mineral Resources Ltd.

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