Ratepayer drowning in debt denied relief

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After losing his business whilst battling crohn’s disease, Dean found the mounting bills hard to stay on top of.

While applications for hardship to his bank and utilities company proved helpful, Dean’s local council was less understanding when it came to his overdue rates notices.

“I couldn’t look after myself; I couldn't afford my medication,” admits Dean.

“Everything went and my mental health just plummeted.

“The whole thing fell apart and I basically couldn't pay my rates.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening to increase financial hardship in the community, the Victorian Ombudsman launched an investigation into how local councils were dealing with ratepayers in financial hardship. .

The Victorian Ombudsman heard concerns from ratepayers like Dean, financial counsellors and community lawyers about the way local councils treat people who cannot afford their council rates.

With his own financial situation dire, Dean reached out to his council for rate relief, but struggled to get help.

“Basically I just got a blanket ‘no, we don't waive rates’,” he says.

“I was quite shocked because we're a community that's meant to help each other.

“The councils are there for the people, but they just act like a for profit organisation.”

The Ombudsman’s investigation found it was not uncommon for ratepayers to reveal hardship relief was easier to find in the private sector, such as banks and utility companies, than it was from their local council.

“I did the same thing with the banks (applied for hardship),” explains Dean.

“I was expecting some pretty harsh treatment. I was so worried I'd lose this house that I was so lucky to get.

“They said, ‘don't worry, we're not here to destroy you and we'll help you while we can’.

“They reduced my payments so that I could actually pay a bit. They kept me on hardship until I could sort of get on my feet.”

Dean urges councils to show compassion when dealing with people to help ease their financial burden and stress – especially when they were vulnerable to financial difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think they have to realise that we're all humans and we suffer. Sometimes we have ups and downs, but I've never had a down this bad,” explains Dean.

“The council just needs to be compassionate and understanding.”