Having seen multiple recent reports regarding the difficult time experienced by Oakleigh businesses I felt it necessary to provide some relevant information as one of the local government representatives for the area.
Small businesses have for decades been the leaders of Oakleigh’s trading precinct. I understand Oakleigh is but one of thousands of similar trading precincts across Australia.
Faced with the biggest drop in economic activity since the 1930’s depression there is now merit for council rates to be reduced not only because incomes have been suspended in many cases but for the principle of if the same service can’t be delivered by the council, the same amount of rates shouldn’t be charged.
There is a very strong case for councils to decrease council rates in the next financial year not just freeze them at this year’s rate.
For example the private school where my teenager goes has given my wife and I a 10% decrease in school fees. I didn’t ask for it. The school says it due to the “change in tuition circumstances”.
Now I understand other schools are doing things differently. Some are offering discounts only upon request, others are offering fee deferrals only and others are not offering anything different than usual.
So when I think about my responsibility as a Councillor, I believe I need to use my judgement as to what’s best for the local businesses in my area. I have become persuaded that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
Sure there will be a hit in the short term to council revenue. This is a real concern due to the essential services councils deliver to thousands of people, particularly those more vulnerable and disadvantaged.
However when I think about ten years from now, I want to see an Eaton Mall that is in all ways bigger and better than today, with the businesses currently grown. More customers and more business.
I fear that by simply saying we will defer council rates won’t be enough and too many businesses will be unable to sustain past the reopening of the economy later this year.
To achieve this, the council also needs to make considerable savings in its own budget. For too long there has been spending on too many initiatives that simply have no benefit at all to most ratepayers.
On the other hand the benefits of Eaton Mall on Monash are enormous. It’s our biggest drawcard.
When I look at our businesses and traders, I want to see them as partners, not just ratepayers.
The more they do better, the better our City does.
When I first stood for council almost twelve years ago no Oakleigh café was opened after 8pm and council rates increased year on year by 6%.
At the time my policy was for a rate freeze. Hopefully at the very least, I’ll be able to implement that commitment in the coming months.
Sure council rates are among the smaller costs these businesses pay. Costs for staff, suppliers, rent, loan repayments, utilities, make up a larger portion among many others.
But the burden of any extra cost at this time and over the next twelve months will add unnecessary stress. Every dollar really will count.
The problem with councils is they rarely look outside the square and are reluctant to do things differently to how they’ve always been done. No council wants to be the odd one out or the first to fail.
But rarely do councils have what we have here in Oakleigh and Monash more broadly. After the Melbourne CBD, Monash is the second biggest employer in Melbourne. Some of the nation’s biggest businesses have their headquarters and offices here.
As we’ve all heard countless times, all Australians have to do their bit during the recovery that we will fight through the next twelve months.
Councils play a huge role in their communities and they must turn their minds to their local economies and economic activity.
At the February Monash Council meeting I was the first Councillor to raise the issue of coronavirus in a council motion centred around local businesses. Unfortunately at that time only two other Councillors supported me.
However by the same time the next month every councillor unanimously supported our actions to allow deferrals with no interest along with other measures.
Over the coming months there will be difficult decisions I will have to make regarding the future of many different initiatives in the Monash community.
Economic management of the $200m council budget has always been a big task under the best of times. Councils themselves are not immune from crumbling cash revenues however the balance sheet Monash has is amongst the strongest in Melbourne.
When I walk into the chamber, I’ll be thinking about. If people can’t pay rates that will have an impact to these revenues as well. The expected fall in property prices won’t escape my consideration. I’ll also look at the best ways a recovery business fund can be set aside.
Throughout this crisis I have strongly encouraged residents to keep consuming take away food from our local hospitality businesses. The work I have been involved in the last two months has been my most rewarding in the seven and a half years I’ve been a member of this Council. Across all three levels of government, we have worked hand in hand to support our Health Departments and frontline workers.
Everyone needs to do their bit but we will get through this and be stronger for it. When the going got tough, we all got going together.
*Theo Zographos represents Oakleigh on the Monash City Council.