Killabakh resident Andrew Bissex is frustrated.
Since February 2021 he has been attempting to have his council rates reimbursed under the Service NSW Rural Rate Relief Program for properties impacted by the 2019/2020 bushfires, to no avail.
Under the program, people who were deemed eligible by Service NSW would receive relief for quarter three (January - March) and quarter four (April - June) for 2019-20, with a later extension to include the two following quarters.
After receiving a letter from MidCoast Council sent to residents in bushfire impacted areas dated January 29, 2021, Mr Bissex visited council to apply for rate relief.
The letter from council stated that the criteria to be eligible for rate relief were that the 2019 bushfires resulted in a "burn scar that was greater than 75 per cent of your property", and the property must have also suffered infrastructure loss such as fencing, water tanks, irrigation and machinery.
When he visited council, Mr Bissex took along photographic evidence, required by council, of his property having a greater than 75 per cent burn scar.
He said he was told by a council representative that his "claim was accepted" and he would receive the rate relief.
After much waiting, with rates notices still coming in for payment, and a lot of communication between council and Mr Bissex, in March this year he was ineligible for rate relief, because his property dwelling had not been burnt - a criteria that had not been listed on the original letter from MidCoast Council.
After contacting MidCoast mayor Claire Pontin, Mr Bissex received an email from Steve Embry, council's director corporate services.
"I can advise that I had direct dealings with Service NSW on this matter and their advice was very clear," Mr Embry said.
"They asked council to contact impacted property owners to ascertain if they met criteria specified by Service NSW (which included the need for 75 per cent of the property to be impacted) and to then provide that information to Service NSW so that funding could be provided. Council only acted in response to the request for advice from Service NSW.
"The government subsequently did not agree to fund properties under this criteria and only funded properties which were completely destroyed. ... This was their decision and in effect council was only acting on behalf of Service NSW in seeking advice from impacted property owners.
"Council acted in good faith to seek information from property owners on behalf of Service NSW so that impacted properties could receive support from the State government through the funding relief."
Manning River Times contacted MidCoast Council about the issue and a spokesperson provided the following response.
"The rate relief program for bushfire impacted properties is a program operated by the NSW government, not MidCoast Council, through Service NSW.
"The initial letter sent to bushfire impacted ratepayers in January (2021) was asking for people to register for consideration for the ... program. This was sent to people who had been identified as 'potentially satisfying the requirement' to register.
"At that time the advice we had from Service NSW was that there was a potential for ratepayers impacted by the bushfires to have two instalments of their rates paid for by Service NSW.
"Service NSW have now advised ratepayers, in a letter earlier this month, they will only be paying rates where the main house was destroyed beyond repair. This means a number of residents we were hopeful would get rate assistance from the State government, have now been deemed not eligible."
On contacting Service NSW with questions about eligibility criteria for the program, the Manning River Times was sent the following:
"Service NSW understands some residents may have received communication from councils indicating additional property owners were eligible for the program. Service NSW apologises for any confusion and inconvenience this may have caused. Service NSW provided a letter to MidCoast Council that could be passed on to affected residents to clarify program eligibility."
The Manning River Times again contacted Service NSW requesting information about eligibility criteria, and was provided with information that was already available on the Service NSW website.
Service NSW says ratepayers are not eligible if "the only structure damaged or destroyed is an outbuilding on the property such as a shed, or their main property has since been rebuilt or sold".
Nowhere on the Service NSW website was eligibility criteria of a greater than 75 per cent burn scar listed.
The Manning River Times again contacted Service NSW to ask if there had previously been criteria of a greater than 75 per cent burn scar, and received a statement suggesting that Service NSW had been considering an eligibility criteria of the burn scar.
"Service NSW previously sought advice from councils, including MidCoast Council, about additional properties which may have been eligible to receive council rates relief under proposed criteria which was being considered by the NSW government. Under the proposed criteria, rural property owners with a burn scar greater than 75 per cent may have been eligible. Ultimately, the original eligibility criteria was not altered," the spokesperson said.
Mr Bissex maintains that as MidCoast Council "made a binding commitment and should provide the promised rate relief," as at the time of application there was no mention of the dwelling having to have been burnt.
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