With the ongoing uncertainty associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, councils are being asked to waive rates, fees, and charges for those facing hardship, balanced against compliance with legislative requirements. To assist councils with these difficult decisions, the NSW Government announced a suite of measures to provide councils with the flexibility to adjust to the rapidly shifting circumstances around COVID-19, and to allow councils to provide appropriate financial support to their local communities. More information on these measures can be found here. The announcement of the extension of the date by which councils need to adopt their operational plans from 30 June to 31 July 2020 also provides councils with additional time to set rates. Consequently, ratepayers can make use of an extra month before being required to pay their first quarter 2020-21 rates, with the due date able to be extended to 30 September 2020. To provide the flexibility in waiving fees and charges, the Government has also announced measures that allow councils to waive or reduce fees under a new COVID-19 category. This means that councils can immediately apply a fee waiver or reduction for this purpose, without following the usual requirements to establish a category, while also bypassing the need to provide 28 days’ public notice. These measures are discretionary on a council-by-council basis and any decisions councils make about extending reporting timeframes, extending the payment date for the first rates instalment, or the waiving of fees and charges should take into consideration both the financial circumstances of the local community and the flow-on impacts on council revenue and the wider community. Councils are urged to ensure that their provision of hardship support is targeted to those parts of the community most in need. The Office of Local Government’s Debt Management and Hardship Guidelines set out best practice approaches to councils to manage ratepayer debt and respond to cases of hardship, and is a handy reference point to respond to the circumstances arising as a result of an emergency situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Councils are also asked to consider the National Cabinet COVID-19 hardship principles and apply them where appropriate and possible.
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