By KIERAN FINNANE
Last updated 1.01 pm.
Town Councillors last night debated two schemes intended to provide some financial relief to local residents and businesses feeling the impact of the Coronavirus shutdown.
The debates revealed contrasting views of council’s economic and social responsibilities: should the focus be on targeting directly those most in need or on propping up investors and business, with an assumed trickle-down effect.
First up was Deputy Mayor Matt Paterson’s voucher scheme.
Left: DM Paterson participating in council’s Zoom meeting (photo from 30 March).
They would go to residential property-owners in the form of seven x $20 vouchers in September, and eight x $20 in December.
The vouchers would have to be spent at local businesses and in total would put $2.8 million into the local economy.
The money would be drawn from council reserves, currently earmarked for city deals, town and Todd Mall beautification.
Councillor Jimmy Cocking wanted to know if there were local government precedents for spending money in this way.
CEO Robert Jennings noted that council runs a (modest) voucher system in relation to the Regional Waste Management Facility (RWMF). He will do more research.
Cr Eli Melky, who had his own “care and recovery” package to push (the debate over which will be dealt with in a separate article), asked how DM Paterson would return the money to those reserves, without a significant future rate hike (he suggested 12+% would be necessary).
However it would seem DM Paterson is not thinking about returning the money. It would better benefit the community redirected into the vouchers, he argued.
Cr Melky asked him abut the operational costs in managing that many vouchers.
DM Paterson suggested that one full-time position would be involved. Based on 9601 properties, there would be 144,015 vouchers.
About a third of local residential properties are owned by investors, said Cr Melky. Should the vouchers go to the home owner-occupier rather than the investor?
DM Paterson sees the investors as ratepayers who fund council services and take the “biggest risk in our community”. His proposal would be “a way of giving back” to them and prioritising support for small business.
Cr Cocking (pictured, last night) noted that council’s RWMF vouchers encourage landlords to pass them on to tenants.
He suggested casual workers, likely to be in rental accommodation, also take risks, in moving to town, in taking insecure employment.
If council were going to hand out money, he would like to target it to those in need.
DM Paterson said the vouchers, by supporting small business, may help keep casual workers employed.
Whether the vouchers would go to tenants of rental properties, would be up to the ratepayer, he said. A “nice landlord” would give their tenants a voucher.
Cr Cocking said if the scheme proceeds he will “push hard” for tenants to get the vouchers rather than relying on the generosity of landlords.
Mayor Damien Ryan said he sees more advantage in creating a voucher system than in giving a discount on rates, the scheme proposed by Cr Melky.
It is a “very creative” idea that will get money flowing through the system, he said.
Cr Jacinta Price agreed with his comments. DM Paterson had come up with an idea “outside of the box” and she could support “most of it”.
Cr Melky wanted to know how $20 vouchers would work with tourism businesses.
DM Paterson said he saw value in $2.8m being injected into economy within nine months and spread across the municipality.
Cr Jamie de Brenni wanted the “professional opinion” of “two of smartest people around”, CEO Jennings and Director Sabine Taylor.
Mr Jennings said they will provide the best advice on both proposals before the end-of-month meeting. (Neither proposal was included in the publicly released council papers, an indication of the short notice they had received.)
Cr Catherine Satour said that in her conversations with people, including those in rental properties, those who had lost their jobs, and business owners, they were not so much interested in getting money, but in not having to pay their bills.
Their difficulties are right now, she noted, so why leave the vouchers until four, five months hence?
The information at this stage is that things may return to normality by September, said DM Paterson – people would be able to start going out for lunches and coffees.
In December, it would be about the opportunity for everyone “to have a Christmas”.
Cr Marli Banks (pictured) wanted to know how he thought businesses would respond to the scheme and which businesses would be eligible.
DM Paterson saw the main beneficiaries as retail, cafes and restaurants.
Would it be better than supporting the economy through big projects? asked Cr banks, especially as his proposal takes money from such projects – beautifying the town and the mall.
If the vouchers bring people into town – once restrictions are lifted – and keep the doors of businesses open, that is beautification in itself, DM Paterson argued.
Cr Banks wanted to see some modelling so council can be assured that this would be a good way to spend money.
Building is the “standard economic growth model”, she said. Would a voucher scheme produce a better outcome?
DM Paterson said the construction industry, with which he is associated, has been given quite a large stimulus from the NT Government. His scheme was about support for local small business, “sharing the love”.
Cr Banks, who owns a small business, was sceptical. Maybe a couple of thousand dollars at best would come through the door, how is that going to keep people employed? she asked.
DM Paterson suggested that any small business would appreciate $20 that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. It would allows ratepayers to get out, go for lunch, coffee.
Cr Banks asked about what consideration he had given to supporting those who don’t pay rates directly, arguing that every person who pays rent pays rates, either directly or indirectly. She also pointed out that some landlords do not live in Alice Springs.
“How do we as council support the whole community?” she asked.
DM Paterson said he had taken some of his colleagues’ points on board and would answer them, presumably at or before the end-of-month meeting.