An Aboriginal cattle business in the Kimberley say they’re being pushed “close to unviability” due to a near 400 per cent jump in local council rates.

The Kimberley Agriculture and Pastoral Company (KAPCO) runs cattle on four Indigenous-owned pastoral stations in northern Western Australia; Mt Anderson, Myroodah, Frazier Downs and Bohemia Downs. KAPCO is a not-for-profit organisation, passing any profits they make on to Native Title entities and community organisations in the area.

In late January, the Myroodah and Mt Anderson stations received their rate bills from the Shire of Derby/West Kimberley, a combined bill of nearly $300,000.

Myroodah alone was slugged with a bill of $230,000 up from last year’s $61,000 – an increase of more than 375 per cent.

KAPCO Chair Robert Watson said the increase came as a shock.

“The reality is that this takes us to borderline unviable,” Watson told NIT.

“With an increase from $60,000, now we’ve gone up to almost a quarter million. In terms of projections and financial planning, that was never in our scope.”

The hefty rate increase comes despite local councils being advised not to increase revenue from rates due to COVID-19.

Acting Shire President Paul White said skyrocketing land values in the area are the reason for higher prices, not higher rates.

“The stations used to sell in the hundreds of thousands and now they’re selling in the multiple millions of dollars … the jump was incredible,” said White.

Property valuations for the purpose of council rates are conducted by the Valuer General and Landgate – WA’s statutory body for land valuations.

KAPCO is fighting the Valuer General’s assessment, saying the valuation is not reflective of the property’s actual market value. They have also written to Local Government Minister David Templeman and Lands Minister Ben Wyatt to intervene.

The rise in costs for pastoral leaseholders comes at a time when many local councils around WA are reducing the rate burden on ratepayers, a fact mentioned in the Derby/West Kimberley Council Minutes from 30 July last year when the Shire’s 2020/2021 budget was approved:

“Due to COVID-19 and the impacts of the COVID-19 order 2020, Local Governments were encouraged not to increase their Rates in the Dollars with this intention being that they also did not increase Rate yields.

“The Shire has been able to provide decreases to the Rates in the Dollar over all of the Rating Categories but wanted to ensure we had an overall Rate Yield increase.

“This yield increase was necessary for the Shire to be able to ensure we are able to maintain our current service levels and operations.”

White said the decision to increase rate yields was a difficult one for the council.

The Shire of Derby/West Kimberley has been in financial trouble for some time. According to the Department for Local Government’s financial health indicators, the Shire has consistently underperformed since the 2014-15 financial year.

White said previous rate yields were so low they didn’t even cover the costs of maintaining the roads out to the pastoral stations.

“We either go bust and don’t repair any roads, or we try and maintain an income from somewhere. We just don’t get the rates that Broome or Kununurra or a lot of the other Shires do,” he said.

But Watson disputed this, saying several access roads are not being maintained at all.

“The Shire has a policy of maintaining one access road to each of the homesteads on any station, but both Mt Anderson and Myroodah’s roads are not being maintained – we’ve had to patch them ourselves on some occasions,” Watson said.

“With the increase in rates it would be much cheaper and effective to hire private contractors to fix the roads than rely on the Shire to keep up their responsibilities. We’re not getting the service we pay for.”

KAPCO and other ratepayers have been hit with a more than 300 per cent increase in their rates. Photo via KAPCO.

The KAPCO Chair is also concerned the hike in rates will hinder KAPCO’s true mission: increasing the economic and social wealth of Traditional Owners.

“They’re putting at risk the livelihood of Aboriginal enterprises,” Watson said.

“It’s also compromised our commitment and determination to utilising those businesses to contribute to fixing social issues we are currently faced with.

“Those opportunities are even further diminished now because of these new rates.”

Watson believes the Council did not take into consideration the impact a huge jump in costs would have on marginal pastoral businesses.

“I really question whether the members of the Shire Council have made a calculated decision,” he said.

“I don’t think they’ve taken into consideration that three years ago we went back-to-back seasons of low rainfall. We’ve just come out of three years of difficult seasons, and the pandemic created extra difficulty here. Here we are, freshly out of the COVID pandemic, and we’ve been whacked with these astronomical prices on land rates.

“And I don’t believe that the Shire has taken any of that into consideration.”

Questions have also arisen around the Shire’s decision to push for rate payments despite KAPCO appealing the valuation.

NIT contacted Shire President and Liberal candidate for the Kimberley Geoff Haerewa for comment but was directed to Acting Shire President Paul White.

By Sarah Smit