A savagely reduced events program due to the COVID-19 pandemic has helped Wodonga Council cushion the blow to its bottom line of a zero per cent rise next financial year.
The rate increase freeze means the council will forego around $800,000 in additional expenditure in a move no doubt welcomed by ratepayers who have been subjected to multiple 7 per cent hikes in recent memory.
It represents about a $32 saving on rates for the average residential property owner who will be paying $1974.40 in combined rates and charges in 2020-21.
Rate-capping's introduction in Victoria put a sudden halt to councils which had a propensity to lift rates way above CPI on a regular basis including Wodonga..
The impact of COVID-19 on the economy is indisputable, but the pandemic has also created some unforeseen savings for the council with its major calendar of events an obvious victim due to strict social distancing rules still in place for the foreseeable future.
Popular events such as the Children's Fair, Red Carpet youth awards, Friday on My Minds community get-togethers and senior citizen celebrations have been cancelled.
Budget documents reveal council spent more than $1 million on its events program in the past two years and in 2020-21 there is a reduced allocation of $724,000 with Wodonga still keen to maintain its commitment to the Upstream Festival it jointly promoted with Albury Council for the first time this year.
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The event is held in March and hopes are high restrictions on public gatherings have well and truly passed by early next year.
But in an interesting revelation Wodonga's contribution to joint initiatives between itself and Albury under the Two Cities, One Community partnership is nearly $130,000 down from the $290,000 figure allocated for the present financial year.
Tourism development and marketing spend is up nearly $100,0000 as council attempts to woo domestic visitors to the city in the absence of being able to travel overseas due to COVID-19.
But the council has made the tough call to significantly reduce operations at one of its flagship attractions, the Bonegilla Migrant Experience.
It will open just three days, Saturday, Sunday and Monday compared to the usual seven, in a further saving of $234,000 for council.
The council has also made a commitment to keeping its consultancy spend in check.
Councillors trumpeted on budget night there were no new borrowings for the eighth successive year and its present debt of around $16 million had a "low" rating under the Auditor-General's measure of debt risk.
But it wasn't so long ago when council had a debt of more than $30 million and a "high" rating..
Criticism of such a position from the Auditor-General was a source of great indignation by past mayors, councillors and chief executives when asked to respond.
"The Wodonga community has seen the benefit of the borrowings that the councillors at that time were brave enough to commit to in pursuit of delivering on a long-term vision with the delivery of key inter-generational projects that drive visitation and economic benefit for our growing city," chief executive Mark Dixon said.
"This budget not only delivers a zero rate rise for our community but will see more than $30 million in capital works which represents a significant economic driver in our local economy with more than 80 per cent of those works undertaken locally by local people."
But Wodonga Ratepayers Association president Allan Bounader believed ratepayers were long overdue for some respite from city hall with local government elections also on the horizon.
"It is the least they could do considering the fiasco with the waste management levy," he said.
"Under the circumstances I don't think they've given ratepayers and businesses much concession at all.
"They could have dug a little bit deeper into their reserves.
"Councillors and senior management could have also taken a pay cut to show some more compassion and understanding towards ratepayers.
"Councillors will also be after some pre-election point scoring from a zero rate rise."