Posted on April 17, 2020 by Megan Hawley and Lindsay Taylor

COVID 19 – Local Government Regulation to Assist in Financial Relief

Many councils have been investigating ways to provide some financial relief to ratepayers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However the strict financial and procedural provisions of the Local Government Act 1993 (LG Act) have presented various obstacles to doing so in a timely way.

The State Government has responded today by making the Local Government (General) Amendment (COVID-19) Regulation 2020 (COVID-19 Reg) to amend the Local Government (General) Regulation 2005 (LG Reg).

The new provisions of the LG Reg provide for delaying the payment of an instalment of rates (albeit only for a month) and the waiver or reduction of fees in response to COVID-19. The COVID-19 Reg also allows councils additional time (again, only a month) to prepare various documents including draft operational plans.

We previously wrote here about the introduction of s747B into the LG Act to give the Minister power to amend the Act by regulation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That new power has been used to make the COVID-19 Reg.

Relief to Ratepayers

There is no general power under the LG Act for a council to waive the payment of rates which have been made and levied, although there are numerous provisions of the Act which provide some ability to provide financial assistance in respect of rates, for example deferral or payment, waiving interest, or providing pensioner concessions, but only in very particular circumstances.

The new clause 413I of the LG Reg has the effect that an instalment of rates which would have been payable on 31 August 2020 is now payable on 30 September 2020. It also allows councils to delay issuing the rates notices for 2020/2021 until 1 September 2020.

No doubt many ratepayers and councils will consider the ability to defer payment of one instalment by only one month inadequate given the potential economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 Reg also provides councils with flexibility in respect of waiving or reducing the payment of fees determined under s608 of the LG Act.

Section 608 gives councils a broad power to charge fees for services, products or information provided, or for access to buildings. Such fees and charges range from fees for the use of council facilities to fees in respect of the making of development applications and other applications for approvals.

Councils already have the ability to waive or reduce fees charged for non-business activities of a council, but only in respect of cases falling within a pre-determined category of cases. New categories could only be determined after a public notice process was followed, which in some cases would involve notice in the draft operational plan.

Some councils already can provide a waiver or reduction of fees in the case of  hardship. However, that category would not necessarily apply to all people to whom a council might want to provide a discount in response to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 Reg allows councils to establish a new category of cases for which it will waive or reduce fees, being a category in response to the COVID-19 pandemic without needing to provide public notice of the proposed category.

This means councils can determine to waive or reduce fees immediately for such a category of cases.

Other Amendments

The COVID-19 Reg gives councils an extra month to prepare the following documents:

  • operational plan
  • budget review statement for the quarter ended 31 March 2020
  • audited financial reports
  • annual report

It also provides for notification and inspection of various documents on a council’s website instead of in newspapers or at council’s offices.

The COVID-19 Reg can be found here.

If you have any questions regarding the above, please contact Megan Hawley on 8235 9703 or Dr Lindsay Taylor on 8235 9701.