ANGRY Queanbeyan ratepayers are planning to file a class action against Queanbeyan City Council over supplementary rates bills issued to some ratepayers this week as Council seeks to reclaim $3.7 million in undercharged sewer, water and waste fees.
The Queanbeyan Age has spoken with two commercial property owners this week who have been slugged with $10,000 bills for water and sewer access backdated five years to 2009, and another who has been charged $7,000.
The supplementary rates bills hit households on Monday, and an accompanying letter from Council explained that a recent audit of its property database had uncovered a litany of errors in charging its 16,800 rateable properties over the last five years. The audit turned up 2,054 properties that will receive refunds for overpayment of rates, while 860 properties have received bills for outstanding accounts.
A Council finance spokesperson apologised for the error this week, but said Council was required to recover the charges under the Local Government Act.
"This database has never been thoroughly audited and has been transferred through several systems over a number of years, including the addition of a number of properties as a result of previous boundary adjustments," the spokesperson said.
"Council apologises for this error and will be undertaking six-monthly audits of the property database from now on."
However affected residents are furious, and two John Bull Street small business owners are investigating leading a class action to fight the charges.
Small business owner Kim Morris, who runs an art restoration business on John Bull Street, received a bill for $9,929 for undercharged water and sewer access fees on Monday. He told The Queanbeyan Age he "wasn't prepared to take it lying down" and would fight the bill.
"My question is ...they've admitted they've made a mistake, that's fine. But why are you back dating it?
"We've always paid our rates in good faith. Now they're saying that due to their mistake, we owe another $10,000? I just think it's completely unfair," he said.
His neighbouring business owner, Lisa Robinson who runs an exercise therapy business, received a similar bill this week for just under $7,000. She said the move to backdate the charges was "unconscionable."
"It's not fair. It's not even conscionable," she said.
"Small business run on the edge [financially], and it's not just small, insignificant amount of money we're talking about. It's a major amount of money. And there's been no consultation."
Both business owners phoned Council staff to discuss the matter this week, and both said they were willing to be charged at the new, higher rate in the future according with the results of the audit. However Ms Robinson indicated to Council staff that she'd be fighting the retrospective charges.
"I indicated there'd be a class action. That's where I'd like to go," she said.
"Four years ago when I bought this property, I based my decision on a whole lot of things, including the viability of the rates. It [the supplementary rates bill] affects everything, and I can't go back and change my decision [to buy]. I can't now go back and re-bill my customers at a new, higher rate."
Around 5.5 per cent of Queanbeyan's rateable properties have been undercharged. The total amount of outstanding charges is $3.7 million over the five-year period. 2,054 properties have been overcharged and they will receive a credit note on their next rates notice. The value of refunds range from $15 to $60,000.
Council is offering a three-year interest-free payment plan to those ratepayers who will struggle to pay their bill by its due date at the end of August.
* Affected ratepayers interested in discussing their supplementary rates bill should phone Queanbeyan City Council on 6285 6000. Those interested in talking to Kim Morris or Lisa Robinson to discuss their approach can reach Mr Morris on 6297 7670 or Ms Robinson on 6162 0683.