Wollongong councillors took the first official step towards raising rates at last night's meeting, endorsing budget scenarios that will deliver rate hikes of 16 to 25 per cent over three years.
Tasked with deciding which budget options to put on public exhibition as part of Wollongong City Council's ongoing financial sustainability review, the councillors voted 12-1 to support three scenarios, all of which include a combination of service reductions, efficiency measures and a rate rise.
Cr Greg Petty voted against the motion because he said the council needed an independent budget analysis.
The council will now notify the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) that it plans to apply for a special rate variation for the 2014-15 financial year.
In front of a packed public gallery - and faced with vocal criticism from residents and union members on the floor - councillors outlined their reasons for supporting the three budget options, with Labor councillor David Brown summing it up by saying "doing nothing is not an option".
However, most councillors said there would be plenty of room for tweaking the proposed scenarios and urged residents to be vocal in their praise or criticism for them over the next few months.
"Pick one or pick them all to pieces … but get on your iPhone, computer or write a letter and tell us what you think," Cr Leigh Colacino said.
Greens councillors Jill Merrin and George Takacs said they would not decide on any changes until after the next period of consultation, which begins tomorrow.
Chris Connor said residents needed to stop criticising the process and start putting forward specific suggestions for which services they valued, while other councillors praised the controversial citizens panel process, saying it had helped to energise the community.
"This is the first time we have actually had our community engaged, enraged and emotive and that was the aim of the citizens panel," Cr Vicki Curran said.
Last week, a staff report recommended only three of four options outlined should be open to community comment, because the fourth would require deep service cuts, widespread job losses and go against the community's wishes.
Under the first scenario, the council would adopt all recommendations made by the citizens panel, which include $4 million in service cuts, $7 million in efficiency measures and a cumulative rate rise of about 16 per cent over three years.
The second scenario features a rate rise of about 20 per cent over three years, but only half the service cuts and a much lower rise in fees and charges, while the third has just $1 million in service cuts but a 25 per cent rate rise.
So far, 14 other NSW councils have lodged plans to raise rates above the statewide cap for the next financial year, according to the IPART website, while 43 of the state's 152 councils - including Shellharbour and Kiama - successfully applied for a rate rise in the past two years.
Wollongong residents can have their say on each of the three endorsed budget scenarios until February 5 and the council then has until February 24 to formalise its rate rise plans with IPART.
Further decisions about efficiencies and service reductions will be made in the normal yearly planning process, which has to be finalised by June 23.