The Council Rates Hardship Forum on 4 March 2021 was the fifth instalment in FCVic’s Hardship Forum Series. It brought together financial counsellors and Victorian local government finance and rates teams to discuss and understand how councils are supporting vulnerable ratepayers, and how financial counsellors can provide free and confidential assistance to ratepayers experiencing financial hardship. The forum was very well attended, with more than 100 Zoom participants involved. FCVic is grateful to have had the support and assistance of the Municipal Association of Victoria, FinPro and Revenue Management Association.
FCVic Executive Officer Dr Sandy Ross opened the forum by providing some context for the issues to be discussed. He noted that as the peak body for financial counsellors in Victoria, FCVic has received feedback from members raising concerns about how councils respond to vulnerable people in the community experiencing hardship resulting from rate charges and rate arrears. These issues are essential to address if Victoria’s rating system is to be fair and equitable for everyone in the community.
Sandy also highlighted that on 21 December 2020, the Victorian Government released the Local Government Rating System Review Final Report and its response to the 56 recommendations from the independent panel that was appointed in 2019 to review all aspects of Victoria’s local government rating system. Significantly, the Government accepted Recommendation 31: ‘that all Victorian ratepayers have access to consistent billing, debt recovery and payment difficulty assistance and that the use of council’s coercive powers (e.g. legal action and debt collection) are only ever measures of last resort.’ Click here to read the report in full.
Financial counsellor Pam Mutton introduced financial counselling as a free and independent advice and advocacy service and explained the ways in which financial counsellors support their clients, including vulnerable people in rate arrears who often have significant hardships in their lives, and for whom threats by councils to sell their home can have devastating effects.
A panel consisting of the following local government representatives considered questions about financial hardship and supports available for vulnerable ratepayers in their respective areas:
- Rosemary Hancock – Manager Health and Local Economies, Municipal Association of Victoria
- Binda Gokhale – CFO at Wyndham City Council and Vice-President FinPro
- April Ure –Treasurer, Revenue Management Association and Property Revenue Officer, Pyrenees Shire Council
- Lynda Gust – Revenue Team Leader in the City of Greater Geelong
In general, the panel’s responses to the questions and the ensuing discussion indicated that hardship and rates collection policies vary significantly between councils. Financial counsellors would like to see more consistency across the board to ensure that councils take responsibility for dealing fairly and sensitively with ratepayers in hardship.
Financial counsellor Bronwyn Davis reported that some councils have a 12-month limit for hardship policies. For many people in the community, financial hardship is a long-term proposition, and this short-term solution will not suffice. Binda highlighted the importance of breaking down the ‘finance versus customer service silos’ within councils in order to meet the needs of ratepayers in a range of situations. She also acknowledged the need for a more holistic view of council’s purpose in terms of managing the wellbeing of residents, particularly given the impacts of COVID-19 in Victoria.
A number of financial counsellors raised the issue of Centrepay and several councils confirmed that they offer Centrepay as a payment option for rates payments, with April Ure from Pyrenees Shire Council stating that her team actively encourages residents to use Centrepay where possible.
At the conclusion of this panel discussion, attendees were organised into breakout groups containing a mix of financial counsellors and staff from various councils and shires. Whilst in the breakout session, they were asked to consider the following questions:
- What do financial counsellors see through their casework around rates and financial hardship?
- Does your local council have an accessible hardship and rates policy? Does the rates and revenue teams know about the roles of various services, including financial counsellors in their local government area (LGA)?
- What triggers a referral to a financial counsellor for support?
- How can we strengthen relationships to ensure collaboration in this new pandemic environment?
Each breakout room then shared key points with the broader group. In terms of the overall impression of financial counselling, rural shires reported having had positive experiences with financial counsellors, whereas metropolitan councils reported negative or mixed experiences –mainly due to insufficient supply of financial counsellors in more densely populated LGAs. Connections were made between some council representatives and their local financial counsellors during the discussion.
Once again, the issue of inconsistency in approaches to hardship came up in the breakout discussion. For example, some councils and shires waive rates in family violence situations whereas some do not; some accept Centrepay and others don’t. In terms of reaching out and referring to financial counsellors, some council teams are very engaged whereas others have not adopted the practice.
Financial counsellors and council representatives agreed that there is room for improvement in the relationship between respective sectors. Some suggestions include having information about financial counselling and hardship arrangements in accessible formats and different languages on rates notices and relevant websites.
The value of having well-trained staff at council is obvious, and the example of a hardship officer specifically employed by council to follow up with individuals experiencing difficulty with rates payments was raised as a good alternative to standard rates collection methods. Whilst this approach would be difficult to implement in smaller teams, the need for more training across the board about financial hardship and options for assistance such as financial counselling was widely recognised. Further training on these topics for council employees is already scheduled.
It is clear how much the councils that were represented at this hardship forum valued the input of financial counsellors, in particular regarding the importance of listening to residents about their circumstances and needs. Whilst there are challenges ahead with the winding back of financial assistance by the Federal Government, Sandy Ross concluded the session by emphasising the need to keep up the momentum by continuing the dialogue and building on the relationship between financial counsellors and local government representatives. Future opportunities for collaboration include inviting local council representatives to FCVic’s regional network meetings.