The Right Honourable the LORD MAYOR (Councillor Graham QUIRK), Chairman of the Establishment and Coordination Committee, moved, seconded by the DEPUTY MAYOR (Councillor Adrian SCHRINNER), that the report of the meeting of that Committee held on 10 March 2014, be adopted.
Chairman: Is there any debate?
LORD MAYOR: Thanks very much, Madam Chairman. Just prior to coming to the formal report on today's agenda, I just want to make a couple of comments on a few other issues. Just following on from Question Time today, I did take the opportunity to dig out that letter that Councillor JOHNSTON was referring to. I am pretty sure this is the one she was referring to. I will read it out in full.
'Request to develop park in Q2 flood-affected land' is how it is headed. 'I refer to your email in relation to the above and the reasons outlined in the email to you from the Acting Regional Coordinator for Parks, Asset Services South, as to why they do not support a proposal for Council assets to be installed in a parcel of land in Rocklea. I also note Councillor GRIFFITHS' comments in the Southern Star where he acknowledged the importance to locate Council assets in locations that are not subject to frequent flooding. You may not be aware, but the examples you refer to in your email are not located in areas which are subject to Q2 flooding.'
That is the bit that she read out from that letter. Those examples, madam Chairman, to which Councillor JOHNSTON was referring to, are as follows. She says, 'Council has spent $6 million building a new park at Tennyson.' That is, of course, Ken Fletcher Park which she is referring to there.
LORD MAYOR: Not a Q2, Madam Chairman. It floods, what, once in 40 years on average. And also made reference to $1 million at Milton, and several million rebuilding flood-affected parks in Councillor de WIT’s ward—again, events which occur maybe every 30 or 40 years.
So the difference in this case—and I understand that the land that she was referring to is based around Inskip and Melbourne Streets at Rocklea. So that is the context to which I was responding. It is Q2 land. It is land which floods—
Councillor JOHNSTON interjecting.
Chairman: Order! Councillor JOHNSTON!
LORD MAYOR: —every two years, and Council has a firm policy around it. I want also to—
Chairman: LORD MAYOR, just a moment. Councillor JOHNSTON, stop interjecting. I have already said you will be warned if you don't stop interjecting. Last warning. LORD MAYOR.
LORD MAYOR: Thanks very much, Madam Chairman. We are, this coming Monday, to see the commencement of traffic flowing over the Robinson Road overpass. This will be a great advancement for that particular area. It is a bit of a triangle. There's a few wards affected by that particular piece of infrastructure. There are delays of up to 15 minutes in the peak period because of the train services that run through that corridor. There are plans for ever-increasing trains to be running through the corridor, so this will obviously be a welcome piece of infrastructure for those residents. It has been a long time in the making, and to be able to see that open for traffic next Monday is a great step forward.
During the course of the week, also, and together with the Minister for Police, I launched the Council's CitySafe Network. This was an additional upgrade of nine cameras—CCTV cameras based in the city, and also in Fortitude Valley. We have now seen 1,150 occasions of intervention because of CCTV cameras. The great thing about the digital transformation that I spoke about earlier is that we are taking this across governments. So, police officers will now be armed with iPads which will have a direct link to these CCTV cameras. It can provide immediate information—I think it is within about .2 of a second in terms of its immediacy, and that allows officers to size up a situation, to find if they do need reinforcements in certain circumstances, but importantly to intervene quickly in those cases. So that, I think, is a welcome addition.
I want to acknowledge also the passing of Warwick Raymond Parer, who died last Friday. Warwick will be buried this coming Friday in a State funeral, and I just want to acknowledge the work that he has done as a former Senator for our State of Queensland.
Also in the last period of time we have had the World's Greatest Shave for Leukaemia. That ran from 13 to 16 March, and $120 million has been raised since 1998, and I acknowledge all of those who have been involved over the years in terms of the fundraising for that event.
I think that is probably as much as I need to say. Of course, we are going through the resurfacing of Coronation Drive at the moment. That is a significant project, $2.5 million of expenditure in Coronation Drive. We saw a lot of that road degraded in terms of the flooding of January 2011 causing impacts on the under-surface of that road. With all road projects now, about 10 per cent of the road surface is actually composed of recycled materials.
Today in the Establishment and Coordination Committee Report, the item we have before us is an approval to sell properties for overdue rates under the City of Brisbane Regulation. These are matters which come to the Council on occasions. They are a last resort. Ironically, when we get to this point and we're going to sell properties, it is amazing how people find the money to pay. We hope that also, in this particular case—most if not all of the owners of these properties, some of which of course are investment properties as well—will be able to come up with the cash to make those payments to meet their commitments to the city of Brisbane.
Obviously they comply with the Regulation. We have been through a process of asking and asking and asking for people to bring their rates up to date, and in terms of entering into arrangements, all of those prospects have been sought. So I again put this forward for the consideration of the Chamber.
Chairman: Further debate; Councillor DICK.
Councillor DICK: Thanks Madam Chair; I rise to speak on this one item in the E&C Report today, which is the approval to sell properties for overdue rates under the City of Brisbane Regulation 2012. This is about the third week in a row that we have only had one item on the agenda, and I would encourage the LORD MAYOR in future weeks to either start bringing more items to the Chamber and not locking them up, or indeed, providing this Chamber and this Council more information on behalf of ratepayers.
But on this item, Labor Councillors will be supporting the recommendation today. As the LORD MAYOR said, this is, I guess, the last report. At item 4 of the report today, it does list the extensive avenues that the Council officers do exhaust to recoup this revenue, and we are talking about some $161,717.66 of outstanding rates. I want to be very clear: I don't want to see any person ripping off the system.
I think if you look at the ratepayers of our city, it is around probably 99.999 per cent of the ratepayers who do the right thing. We know from time-to-time people may get behind for genuine circumstances. The Council is very good at working with those in need, but the list before us today quite frankly are those people who aren't honouring their commitment of being fair citizens or indeed shouldering the burden of helping our city grow, and they are expecting other people to do a lot of the hard yards.
That said, I wonder if it is time for the Council to review how we actually deal with these situations, because of the incredible amount of resources and information used to recover this. When you look at the list of techniques and avenues required, there is the issuing of a letter of intention, the inspection of the property, inspection of the property and attempting to contact neighbours and/or local churches and police stations, attempting to contact the owners via mail, telephone, email, internet and in person, and consulting with other Council areas, namely connected communities and obviously our CARS (Compliance and Regulatory Services) section of Brisbane Lifestyle.
It is disappointing when we see a very, very, very small minority doing the wrong thing, and in one case I think we are looking at one owner with a whole range of properties. It certainly shouldn’t get to the stage where we have to threaten to sell someone's house.
There are three vacant lands and eight non-owner occupied residential issues we are dealing with, and that is in Attachment B. That is a summary of the 11 properties. I think it is highly disappointing for the work of the Council officers who are put into this position, first of all, essentially brokering as debt collectors on behalf of the ratepayers. I am not sure if there are other avenues we can look at in negotiating directly with the banks or some of the issues surrounding the financing, to look at fast-tracking and expediting some of these outstanding rates.
As I said, I support the measures that we are doing today, but I think it is useful to have a conversation and discussion about what are some of the other things that we may be able to look at in terms of making sure that we are not either relying—and reading the report, it says that it is after some three years that we begin the process to actually deal with recovery.
There is one property—and I won't name the registered owner, or list the rate account number, but on the proposed list, it is the second last property listed. I won't give the address out. I note that this is a dispute, and I certainly hope the Council may have been in contact with the Department of Communities to look at ensuring that the resident involved is supported adequately to make sure that they are supported. It seems to be a dispute that can't be resolved at that one property, and I certainly hope that we can do everything we can to support the tenant there.
Reading through the property case history in Attachment C. it does seem to be a difficult situation, and I certainly hope that the Council will be engaging with any charity or Department of Community officers to help resolve that matter and to offer that support for that resident.
So, Madam Chair, happy to support the resolution today by the LORD MAYOR, to offer our support, but also to look at perhaps some new ideas that the Council may want to bring forward as a review to deal with these issues. The last thing we want to see is anyone not doing the right thing, not paying their fair share, particularly when so many ratepayers, mums and dads, seniors, pensioners across the gamut, do the right thing, support the Council and pay their rates on time.
Chairman: Further debate; Councillor SIMMONDS.
Councillor SIMMONDS: Thank you very much, Madam Chairman; I just rise to speak on item A and in support of it coming to the Chamber. This is obviously, as has been stated, the sale of land for overdue rates. This is a long-standing ability that administrations of both sides of politics have had under the City of Brisbane Act. It is a similar ability that other councils in local government areas have under the Local Government Act. I note that in recent years Gold Coast, Ipswich, Redlands Shire, Moreton Bay and Sunshine Coast councils have all resolved to sell properties at public auctions to cover rates in arrears.
As has been pointed out by other speakers, it is not something that this Chamber particularly enjoys doing. It is a situation of last resort. Fundamentally, at the end of the day, we are not doing the right thing by the majority of the people who pay their rates on time and do the right thing, if we don't then take action against those who don't do the right thing.
Councillor DICK speculated on some figures. I can tell the Chamber that Council's rates debt is only 1.38 per cent of its annual rates and charges. So, in fact, it is a little over 98.5 per cent of people who are doing the right thing all of the time. I would also note that the benchmark nationally is 2.5 per cent for both public and private sector organisations, so this Council compares very well.
I wanted to make a few key points about this item. First of all, it is very important to differentiate the properties that are in this item from genuine hardship cases. When someone goes into arrears for their rates, it is very quickly established by the rates team if they're in arrears because they're a conscientious objector or for whatever other reason, of if they have a genuine hardship.
If they have a genuine hardship, they are taken to a very different set of policies and protocols. They are offered every assistance that this Council can provide. That assistance ranges all the way through from payment plans to financial counselling to, at the other end of the spectrum, we can also offer rates relief and the waiving of that debt. That is in the case of genuine hardship. The people who are on this list have been assessed for that. They are not genuine hardship cases.
I also want to make the point that the properties on this list are not owner-occupier properties. They do not have owners living in them who have not paid their rates up to date. The properties in front of us consist of three vacant land parcels and eight non owner-occupier residential or investor properties.
The third point I would make is in the majority of these cases, these rates have been outstanding for a number of years, and they have had multiple opportunities, these owners, to reach an agreement with Council. I note that, in this package, Council officers have taken enormous steps to try and reach an agreement with these people before it has come to this place and this stage.
They have contacted these owners by email, post, telephone and internet searches; they have gone through court actions to try and track them down; they have inspected and personally attended the properties before, during and after business hours; they have contacted police stations, neighbours, local churches; they have researched death and cemetery records; they have consulted with other branches of Council, such as BCLP (Brisbane City Legal Practice) and CARS, and in one instance where the owner lives in Indonesia, they have even tried going via the Indonesian Embassy.
I note that Councillor DICK might say that we have done too much. I would call this customer service. This is what Council is all about, trying to assist residents to do the right thing wherever they can before it reaches the stage where we have to take further action. These people have either not returned this correspondence or, in some cases, have repeatedly promised to pay and ultimately have not.
It is also important to note, as the LORD MAYOR did, that this is not the end of the process. Many of these properties will not proceed to sale, and there is the opportunity still for these owners to approach Council to pay their outstanding debt. I note that what these Council resolutions generally achieve is for the banks or the mortgage holders or the super funds to step in and settle the debt on these properties before they go to sale. Of the 145 properties approved for sale since 2002 due to overdue rates, we have sold 10, or 6.9 per cent. So this is quite an effective mechanism of having the mortgage holders step in and settle those debts.
Finally, Madam Chairman, I do note the supposed support from the Labor councillors, and I thank them for that. I note, though, that Labor support never comes without a ‘but’, and that Councillor DICK wasn't so much sitting on the fence as standing on it on his tiptoes trying desperately to balance.
I heard within his speech support for this item, then comments about how we should be tougher and then comments about how we have to be more understanding and more understanding of individual cases. All I would say is that these sorts of cases do take understanding. We saw specifically, for example, after the floods, that a number of cases had to be worked through with individual owners. Now, if Councillor DICK got his way, perhaps after a year or six months of not paying rates—bam, they would have been on the sale list. Well, we don't think that is appropriate.
Councillor SIMMONDS: Well, I am only—
Chairman: Order!Councillor SUTTON! Order!
Councillor SIMMONDS: Madam Chairman, simply reflecting on the fact that support from Labor Councillors doesn’t come without a ‘but’. Councillor DICK was critical of the process about how many chances we had given these people. I make the point that this Administration is dedicated to customer service. We use this as a last resort, and only as a last resort if we can't reach agreement or contact these ratepayers. I thank councillors again, in conclusion, for their support of this item.
Chairman: Further debate; LORD MAYOR.
LORD MAYOR: Thanks very much, Madam Chairman. In closing the debate, to summarise the point that Councillor SIMMONDS was just making, there are certain circumstances which arise where we have to provide flexibility. The floods were a very good example of that, where we allowed people time. They were under enormous not only emotional pressure but financial pressure during that period. It was incredibly important that we provided an element of flexibility.
The current policy arrangement allows us to do that. It allows us to show that understanding where we need to. So, I think what Councillor SIMMONDS was doing was simply expressing a cautionary warning that, if we were to change the existing policy arrangements, we may unintentionally be locking ourselves into a corner whereby we don't have the necessary flexibility when we need to have it. So, there can always be argument around what is efficient and what is not, even with the current set of circumstances, as slow and all as they may be seen to be by some. There have been occasions previously where I can recall Councillor GRIFFITHS roundly criticised us at the last round, I think it was, and went public on a matter where he thought we should not have been taking action to recover rates. There is a difference of views that emerge.
I simply say that I think the system is probably as good as it can be at the moment. It is covered by legislation, of course, in terms of what we do. We have our own policy framework around that, and we will continue to maintain it at the moment because it gives us that flexibility to deal with those emergent situations which can occur, which people are left with all the best intent that they might have to pay. We need to show some flexibility in this city as we did post-2011 flood event.
Chairman: I will put the motion.
Upon being submitted to the Chamber, the motion for the adoption of the report of the Establishment and Coordination Committee was declared carried on the voices.
Thereupon, Councillors DICK and ABRAHAMS immediately rose and called for a division, which resulted in the motion being declared carried unanimously.
The voting was as follows:
AYES: 27 - The Right Honourable the LORD MAYOR, Councillor Graham QUIRK, DEPUTY MAYOR, Councillor Adrian SCHRINNER, and Councillors Krista ADAMS, Matthew BOURKE, Amanda COOPER, Margaret de WIT, Vicki HOWARD, Steven HUANG, Fiona KING, Geraldine KNAPP, Kim MARX, Peter MATIC, Ian McKENZIE, David McLACHLAN, Ryan MURPHY, Angela OWEN TAYLOR, Julian SIMMONDS, Andrew WINES, and Norm WYNDHAM, and the Leader of the OPPOSITION, Councillor Milton DICK, and Councillors Helen ABRAHAMS, Peter CUMMING, Kim FLESSER, Steve GRIFFITHS, Victoria NEWTON, Shayne SUTTON and Nicole JOHNSTON.
The report read as follows
ATTENDANCE: The Right Honourable the Lord Mayor (Councillor Graham Quirk) (Chairman); Deputy Mayor (Councillor Adrian Schrinner) (Deputy Chairman); and Councillors Krista Adams, Matthew Bourke, Amanda Cooper, Peter Matic, David McLachlan, and Julian Simmonds.
A APPROVAL TO SELL PROPERTIES FOR OVERDUE RATES UNDER THE CITY OF BRISBANE REGULATION 2012
1. The Divisional Manager, Organisational Services Division, provided the information below.
2. Brisbane City Council has powers under the City of Brisbane Act 2010 and the City of Brisbane Regulation 2012 to sell a property to recover any unpaid rates and charges.
3. Generally, properties must have rates outstanding for more than three years before the land can be sold by Council. If the land is vacant or only used for commercial purposes and Council has judgement against the owner, sale can occur where rates are outstanding for more than a year.
4. The Council officers have exhausted all available avenues in respect to properties listed in Attachment B, submitted on file, including:
(a) issuing of a letter of intention to commence sale action to the owner/s and all listed encumbrances on the title deed;
(b) inspecting the property during or after business hours;
(c) inspecting the properties and attempting to contact neighbours and/or local churches and police stations
(d) attempting to contact the owners via mail, telephone, email, internet and in person
(e) consulting with other Council areas, namely Connected Communities and Compliance and Regulatory Services (CaRS) in Brisbane Lifestyle Division, to help contact owners.
5. Attachment B, submitted on file, contains a summary of the 11 properties recommended to be sold to recover rates. These properties are categorised as follows:
Three vacant land; and
Eight non owner-occupied residential
6. Attachment C, submitted on file, contains case histories on each property.
7. The sale process may assist ratepayers to access funding support such as the early release of superannuation or payments by the mortgagee to pay their rates.
8. Offers of applications for rate relief are not applicable as there are no owner-occupied properties listed.
Implications of proposal
9. The sale of properties listed in Attachment B, submitted on file, will result in the recovery of $161,717.66 of outstanding rates, charges, fees and interest as at 31 December 2013.
10. Accordingly, the Divisional Manager submits the following recommendation with which the Committee agrees.
THAT COUNCIL RESOLVE IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE DRAFT RESOLUTION SET OUT IN ATTACHMENT A, hereunder.
Draft Resolution TO AUTHORISE THE SALE OF LAND FOR OVERDUE RATES THAT IT BE RESOLVED THAT
rates on the lands described in Attachment B, submitted on file, have been outstanding for over three years;
all appropriate legal action, where possible, has been taken by Council to recover those rates but such legal action has been unsuccessful; and
there are no current legal proceedings pending regarding the liability of the owners to pay any of the rates specified in Attachment B, submitted on file.
Then COUNCIL RESOLVES TO SELL THE LAND AND AUTHORISES THE TAKING OF NECESSARY ACTION TO EFFECT SUCH SALES UNDER PART 12, DIVISION 3 OF THE CITY OF BRISBANE REGULATION 2012.