South Grafton pensioner Alan Smith has racked up more than $30,000 in unpaid rates since buying a house about 14 years ago.
South Grafton pensioner Alan Smith has racked up more than $30,000 in unpaid rates since buying a house about 14 years ago. Tim Howard

Council's rate plan ultimatum

A SOUTH Grafton pensioner who has racked up more than $30,000 in unpaid rates and other charges has 21 days to accept an ultimatum to repay the money.

At its Tuesday meeting, Clarence Valley Council voted unanimously that Alan Smith, a 72-year-old widower on the age pension, repay $175 a fortnight to the council to recover outstanding rates and annual charges and water services for his home.

The council only agreed to waive interest charged from May 22, not earlier interest accrued from the unpaid amount.

It also retained the right to sell the property if the owner failed to maintain the payment arrangement.

An amendment from Cr Karen Toms added a 21-day time limit for Mr Smith to agree to the resolution.

The council went into confidential session to discuss the financial details, then went public to debate the resolution.

Throughout the debate, councillors did not mention Mr Smith by name, choosing to retain a fiction of privacy Mr Smith has not enjoyed since his plight was mentioned first on social media forums and then on national television program A Current Affair last week.

During questions, the council general manager Ashley Lindsay said the council needed to be clear about its demands.

"I think that it's council requires the owner to pay. That's my view," he said. "I don't think we offer, I think we require. That's what we're saying, this is the minimum."

In debate, Cr Andrew Baker said this matter had been before the council three times before and each time it had voted unanimously to proceed with recovery of the debt.

"It's a decision of council," he said. "We own it, we're responsible for it and we've made it in the public interest of all ratepayers, who if we don't go about the business of collecting the rates that we have to collect, then all of those other ratepayers have to subsidise the non-ratepayer."

He said this should be the council's last throw of the dice on this matter. "This is excessively fair to an individual but not necessarily fair to all of the ratepayers who are struggling some to pay their rates and would probably like to have all sorts of concessions, but they don't come and ask for them because they see it as their obligation to pay their way."

Karen Toms was less hard-line, describing the pensioner's position as a "sensitive topic".

"We have a responsibility to collect all rates that are due," Cr Toms said. "We also have a responsibility to assist any ratepayers that find themselves in difficulties and clearly this ratepayer has found himself in difficulty.

"I think this motion that's before us will assist him to get out of those difficulties.

"It's going to take a very long time but, of course, doesn't happen overnight when it's taken such a long time to get to where we are today."

Cr Toms said people who own property had responsibilities that did not go away.

"I'm aware that we have tried for a long time to work with this person to assist him and we're continuing to do that in a respectful manner," she said.

"I'm confident that this amount that we're requiring now from this person based on the information we've been given on his circumstances won't cause him any distress.

"I hope that this time this will assist him to work toward being in a better position with his debt."

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