Mayor denies rate rise poll was skewed

Shellharbour residents polled on the council's proposed rate rises were first shown a pamphlet saying roads, drains and playgrounds would deteriorate and sporting fields would be mowed less often, unless rates were increased significantly.

The poll, taken last month by the Illawarra Regional Information Service for Shellharbour City Council, asked whether the council should apply for a rate hike higher than the pegged 3.4 per cent rise.

After 1000 poll participants had been recruited, they were sent a council-drafted pamphlet and told to familiarise themselves with it before taking the poll.

The result has been criticised as using loaded questions to deliver the result the council wants - support for a rate rise.

But Mayor Marianne Saliba denied this, saying the pamphlet was just stating the facts.

The pamphlet showed three options: no extra rate rise above the pegged 3.4 per cent (about $31 a year); a "sustainable" rise of 9.3 per cent ($104) each year for four years; and a "small" rise of 6.7 per cent ($72) a year for four years.

See Shellharbour council's Moving Towards a More Sustainable Future pamphlet

See Shellharbour council's Special Variation to Rates survey

It said limiting rate rises to 3.4 per cent would mean funding cuts for failed drainage infrastructure. And the condition of roads and footpaths would deteriorate from "fair" to "poor".

Parks and sportsgrounds would be mowed less often, playgrounds would deteriorate to "poor" condition, pools would deteriorate to a "poor" condition and pool fees could rise.

Library refurbishments would also cease.

By contrast, under the "sustainable" scenario of a $104 rise each year for four years, there would be increased spending on roads and footpaths.

Playground equipment could be replaced more often, parks could be mowed as often as now, and funding would be available for increased stormwater drain replacement.

The "small" increase scenario ($72 a year) involved maintaining current service levels, but pool fees could rise.

The results of the poll, announced by the council on Tuesday, showed that almost 60 per cent of those polled supported a rate rise greater than the pegged 3.4 per cent.

About 40 per cent approved of the small increase, and 19.4 per cent approved of the larger "sustainable" 9.3 per cent a year rise.

MORE: Shellharbour rate rise well supported: survey

Former mayor Kellie Marsh attacked the survey for asking "loaded questions".

"I was absolutely gobsmacked, to say the least, when I read the results of that survey," she said.

"I have had countless calls, emails, people stopping me in the street [about] rate rises. I haven't had one person in support of it.

"I think the survey was designed to give the answers they want to hear."

Ms Saliba denied that the pamphlet skewed the poll.

"I don't think it's a loaded survey - it's becoming really clear to people that it's unsustainable the way it is," she said.

"You can maintain the rates that you currently pay [but] there's going to be a deterioration in the product.

"We've got to give the facts."

The council's plans to borrow almost $16 million to build the controversial $57 million Shellharbour City Hub were not mentioned in the survey, nor in its results.

But the pamphlet stated that the "sustainable" option would require extra expenditure of $18.8 million.

By contrast, the "small" increase scenario needed an extra $10.4 million.

Ms Saliba said money raised from a special rate variation was not allowed to be spent on a project such as the Hub - it must go on asset renewal.

Around 44 per cent of the survey respondents were aged over 65, and 94 per cent were ratepayers.

University of Wollongong politics lecturer Anthony Ashbolt said poll questions are often formed in such a way.

"You set up a focus group and you predetermine the outcome of that focus group," he said.

"But I think it's interesting that people are willing to pay for more services for [public] infrastructure."

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