Cairns Regional Council’s Budget for 2020-2021 – the first Budget for this term of Council – is one that reflects the challenges that we face in this unprecedented time.
It is a Budget that looks not only to this financial year, or to the next couple of years, but to the long-term future of our city – it is a fiscally appropriate response to the coronavirus crisis.
It considers the need for immediate and needed stimulus, whilst not overburdening ratepayers.
Careful preparation and planning, using relevant information and making informed decisions based on calculated forecasts, were part of the process this Council used to formulate a three-year plan to coronavirus recovery.
The plan includes a modest general rate rise of 1.8 per cent this year, followed by two proposed rate rises of 2.8 per cent in the two following years. Of course, the organisation will endeavour to find more operating efficiencies with a view to reducing these proposed rate rises.
A major component of this year’s Budget is the expenditure of more than $396 million on materials and services associated with delivering our Capital Works program, and for maintenance, renewals and other services delivered to the community.
And importantly, approximately 90 per cent of Council’s total expenditure is invested locally.
We have deliberately boosted our Capital Works program for the next year to a record $181 million, which includes more than $28 million for the redevelopment of the Esplanade Dining Precinct, $60 million for water and waste infrastructure, and $41 million for improvements to our transport and drainage network.
These capital works focus on projects that will provide vital economic stimulus in the downturn while effectively priming the city for the expected resurgence of visitors in the future.
In developing the 2020/21 Budget, Council has been mindful of the impacts of coronavirus on both Council’s finances and the community.
There is no escaping the reality that because of our dependence on tourism, we will be one of the most severely impacted cities in the country, with our economy expected to take a $1 billion hit this year, and nine out of 10 business impacted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Helping business and residents through this crisis has focus of this Council from the start of the pandemic.
As early as early February, Council endorsed initiatives to respond to the developing crisis, which included extension of rates payments by three months, allocating funds to Cairns Chamber of Commerce to develop and promote a Stay Local – Buy Local campaign, and fast tracking of funds to Tropical Tourism North Queensland for marketing.
A month later Council endorsed further support measures, including the bringing forward of $2.5 million of maintenance works to provide economic stimulus; a 50 per cent reduction in rent for businesses leasing Council facilities; provision of a three-month extension on a range of business-related fees and charges, waving all outdoor dining fees from April to June, and extending the due date on a raft of business fees.
In May, Council endorsed a COVID-19 Financial Hardship Program, to provide rates and charges assistance to those ratepayers experiencing financial hardship through extended payments plans and interest waivers.
Council, through the Mayor’s Office, was also instrumental in establishing the Local Leadership Committee (LLC), which includes myself, Federal Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch, and State Member for Cairns Michael Healy, to coordinate the local response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The LLC, assisted by two sub-committees, one with a focus on social effects and the other on economic impacts of the crisis, provided a platform for advocacy.
Notably, it was through this structure that business leaders in Cairns developed a suite of 10 key initiatives for consideration by government (federal, state and local) in response to the unfolding economic effects from the spread of COVID-19.
Many of those survival initiatives were acted upon, such as:
- The waiver of some public sector taxes, fees and charges for significantly impacted business.
- Direct wage subsidies (JobKeeper), which this Council will continue to lobby the Federal Government to extend for our region.
- Commercial rental support with “flow through” support for commercial landlords.
- Relaxation of visa working conditions for “stranded” working holiday migrants and students.
- Funded advisory support services for businesses.
Development of a reference point for local businesses on the support packages available.
We have also formulated a clear path to recovery – the Cairns Pathway to Recovery from COVID-19 report – which has been endorsed by all three levels of government.
The document outlines the need for all three levels of government to work collaboratively to support the region’s economic recovery through a four-phase recovery plan – Survive > Stimulate > Recover > Thrive.
This approach will not only see the Cairns economy return to the position of strength it was ‘pre-COVID’, it will build a more diverse and resilient economy that will support sustained economic growth and prosperity.