DROWNING IN DEBT: South Grafton pensioner Alan Smith has racked up more than $30,000 in unpaid rates.
DROWNING IN DEBT: South Grafton pensioner Alan Smith has racked up more than $30,000 in unpaid rates. Tim Howard

Council 'too lenient' to pensioner with $30k rates bill

CLAIMS on national television of cruel treatment of an aged pensioner owing about $30,000 in unpaid rates are off the mark, says Clarence Valley Council general manager Ashley Lindsay.

On A Current Affair on Thursday, Alan Smith, 72, described how the council failed to inform him it planned to sell his house earlier this year to recover the outstanding rates.

When he entered into a deal with the council to keep him in his house, the council had forced him to accept a deal that paid off his rates bill but left him with just "$20 a day" to live on.

Mr Lindsay said rather than cruelty, the council had shown leniency towards him for a long period.

"Perhaps if we hadn't been so lenient in the past, we wouldn't be in the situation we're in now," he said.

"We've had promises made to us over the years that haven't been kept. If we had stepped in earlier, before things blew out, it would be better for both sides."

Mr Lindsay dismissed the description of the council as "cruel" in its treatment of Mr Smith.

"It's definitely disappointing to be seen in that light," he said. "Our values don't go to forcing people out of their homes. That's not what we're about."

Mr Lindsay said he could not comment on specific matters, because of privacy rules, but said people should note Mr Smith was living in his home and the council was continuing to work with him.

He said Mr Smith's application for hardship relief would be the subject of a report to next Tuesday's full council meeting.

The Daily Examiner interviewed Mr Smith last week but was told it could not use the information until after his story was televised.

"There's no doubt I owe the money," Mr Smith said last week. "What I want is a full breakdown of where, when and how much I owe.

"I've been trying to get those figures to make sure the pensioner discount is applied."

Mr Smith said when he bought the house in about 2004, he and his wife Kay entered into a cost-sharing agreement.

"We agreed that I would take care of the mortgage payments and she would pay the rates," he said.

But in late 2010 his wife died and Mr Smith later went to stay with family near Orange.

"While I was down there I had some severe medical issues and I ended up being away from here for another two and a half years.

"I was really focussed on staying alive. I got back here in December 2016 and I'm still trying to get everything back in order here from that time."

Mr Smith said he has been in bad health for a long time.

"I've had cancer, two heart attacks and three strokes," he said. "Before I moved here my doctor told me I might have a year maybe two to live. Twenty-one years later I'm still here."

Mr Smith said he was worried the cancer may have returned but was unable to afford the $300 cost for a biopsy.

"What can you do when you only have $125 a week to live?" he said.

Mr Lindsay said the council would be able to supply Mr S mith with any breakdown of his rates notices he required.

"The matter will be before the council on Tuesday," he said. "Councillors can discuss more options then."

Options available include waiving the interest component of the debt.

Documents in the council papers are confidential.

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