Putting a Cap on Community

The Economic and Social Consequences of Victoria’s Local Government Rate Caps Policy
by Dan Nahum

The Victorian Government’s policy of capping of local government rates revenue in Victoria is a regressive move on economic, social and democratic grounds. By arbitrarily tying the growth in total rates revenue in each local government area to price indexes, the state government restricts the ability of local governments to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with expanded, secure employment and service offerings.

Rates on property are the largest single source of revenue to local governments in Victoria. Of total Victorian local government revenue in 2019-20 ($11.7 billion), rates accounted for $5.6 billion or almost half. Since 2016-17, the Victorian state government has capped the amounts local governments can collect from their ratepayers.

New research by the Centre for Future Work, commissioned by the Australian Services Union, finds that the imposition of rate caps has cost up to 7425 jobs in 2021-22, counting both direct local government employment and indirect private sector jobs. They have also reduced GDP by up to $890 million in 2021-22. The costs of suppressed local government revenues, and corresponding austerity in the delivery of local government services, will continue to grow with each passing year if the policy is maintained.

The rate cap policy becomes more restrictive as the overall economy slows, since the rate cap is tied to inflation indexes which tend to slow when the economy is weak.

The local government sector in Victoria employs about 50,000 people in a wide range of services and occupations, including road planning and maintenance, home and aged care, waste disposal, libraries, childcare, school crossing supervision, maternal and child health, the State Emergency Service, and environmental management.

The rate caps act as a brake on recovery and growth by embedding a dynamic of self-fulfilling fiscal restraint and austerity. Additionally, there has been a shift to other forms of local government revenue-raising that are less progressive and socially equitable, such as fees and fines.

Rates bills are calculated based on relative property valuations – so even if local governments are collecting less from rates overall than they would in the absence of the cap, growth in a particular ratepayer’s payments may well exceed the overall cap.

The rate cap policy inhibits a normal trend of expanding and improving local government services in line with population growth, rising living standards, and economic expansion – as well as interfering with the democratically-expressed preferences of local government voters.

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