Traders are right to be asking questions

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[The promotional video above was made by the Warrnambool City Council in 2011. It reflects the type of work that Commerce Warrnambool now wants to be paid to do.]



[dropcap style=”color:#A02F2F;”] S [/dropcap]hortly after we started Bluestone Magazine last year, I wrote a piece about the importance of transparency, accountability and a preparedness to ask the hard questions of those tasked with running our city.

At that time, I lamented the fact that people who were prepared to put their head above the sand dunes and ask the prickly questions were often howled down as being trouble makers, out-of-touch, or holding the city back.

Judging by the response to the Warrnambool traders who have stood up and challenged a proposal to hit them with a new levy, little has changed.

The men in suits have again rallied to remind the rest of us of who they think should run this city and that we best shut up and let them get on with it.

That has certainly been the tenor of the argument as to why Commerce Warrnambool, a volunteer body of around only 100 members, should be allowed, via the Warrnambool City Council, to whack every trader with a special fee to raise $600,000 for promotions and marketing.

The proposed fee, which is based on property values, would run for five years and increase by 5 per cent each year.

Traders have every right to ask questions – and lots of them – especially when the finer details about this levy have been so vague.


Most traders are more concerned about the high overheads of doing business, not adding to those expenses.


[dropcap style=”color:#A02F2F;”] A [/dropcap]s was revealed when we first wrote about this issue last week, numerous traders, including several high-profile business operators, said they knew nothing about the levy until it was presented to council as a virtual fait accompli.

Instead of questions being asked of Commerce Warrnambool as to why its communications strategy had obviously fallen short, the guns were turned on the traders.

In its editorial on Friday, the local newspaper spoke of the perils of conservatism, of traders ‘tying themselves in knots’ and failing to embrace change, and that, as a city, Warrnambool really needed to grow up. (As an aside, the paper has failed, thus far, to mention that its General Manager, Tim Lewis, is a general board member of Commerce Warrnambool. Update: a new board has since been elected and no longer includes Mr Lewis. He does, however, remain a member of the organisation.)

These traders are the same people who have busted their guts renovating the often rundown CBD properties that they are forced to rent at prices which can be on par with those charged in suburban Melbourne. (Indeed I know of one hairdressing salon that floods each time it rains, but the property owner refuses to upgrade the plumbing.)

These traders have stripped back floors, painted walls, installed tearooms, hired staff, filled out myriad paperwork for everything from an A-frame to window signage and now, for their sins, they work long and exhausting hours in the belief that they have something to offer Warrnambool: and they do.

But apparently they could do being doing even better, if only they each paid another tax.


The Wonderful Warrnambool campaign is among those already funded by the WCC. Image: Warrnambool City Council.


[dropcap style=”color: #A02F2F;”] S [/dropcap]o let’s look at how this $600,000 would be used and how many innovative ideas it might fund.

According to Commerce Warrnambool documents, it is broken down into something like this:

  •  $150,000 for an executive officer and associated costs
  • $110,000 for “branding” of Commerce Warrnambool and a website
  •  $70,000 for professional development
  • $10,000 to attend the Regional Living Expo (currently attended by WCC)
  •  $25-30,000 for the annual business awards (currently run by WCC and sponsored by Powercorp)
  •  $130,000 for local promotional events – from speedway, to whales, to Christmas decorations
  • $100,000 for an annual infrastructure project of some description.
  • (plus, although it is not specifically mentioned, an extra $15,000 for WCC to handle the levy)

Using these figures, just over a third of the levy – $230,000 – will be spent each year on local promotions and physical works. So far, I can see little difference from what is already being done via the WCC, the Great South Coast Group and the Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism Board.

No wonder traders want to ask a lot more questions and three that come to the top of my mind immediately, are:

i. who will decide how the money is spent?

ii. what are their qualifications or experience to do so?

iii. how will the success of the projects be measured and by whom?

Commerce Warrnambool (and some councillors) have pointed to Swan Hill as a shining example of how the levy can work, so let’s have a closer look at that.


The city of Swan Hill is being used as an example of how the levy can work, but it has not been all smooth sailing.


[dropcap style=”color: #A02F2F;”] P [/dropcap]eter McNabb and Associates, who were paid a large chunk of the $35,000 in public funds that Commerce Warrnambool received last year, developed the Swan Hill levy model, so it mirrors what is planned for Warrnambool.

The levy has been in place in Swan Hill since 2002 to support a group called Swan Hill Inc, but that doesn’t mean it is popular.

In fact it was described by the Swan Hill local paper just two months ago as “controversial“, with the Swan Hill Rural City Council holding a Special Meeting on April 1 to discuss if the levy should continue for another five years.

The council received more than 380 written submissions, including 318 from people directly affected by the impost. Of the 318, 177 people (24%) supported it, and 141 (19%) didn’t – hardly an overwhelming endorsement.

The council went ahead with the levy, but not without its internal critics, such as Cr Gary Norton who was quoted by the local paper as saying:

“Swan Hill Inc has been operating for 10 or 12 years and what have they achieved? Lots of shops and businesses? Lots of empty shops?”

Cr Norton said Swan Hill Inc had not been effective enough in what he believed was a difficult financial climate for local business in Swan Hill.

“If we’re going to attract new businesses we need to reduce our overheads,” he said.

“High rates are killing the region. I urge council to squash this.”

You could swap the words Swan Hill for Warrnambool and the sentiment, for some, would be the same as Cr Norton’s.

So here’s an idea: why not tax the property owners, rather than traders who are being charged a levy based on a property value for a building that – in most cases – they don’t even own?

Then we might get a sense of how popular this idea really is among those with power.

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12 thoughts on “Traders are right to be asking questions”

  1. Elegantly put Carol. The idea of taxing the shop owners makes much more sense to me. As you so rightly said, the traders are barely able to keep their heads above water in this economic climate, without the added expense of a levy that most probably will not yield them any benefit. This is what I was trying to get at in my comment on your previous article about this proposed (done deal?) tax, let’s call it what it is!

  2. This is another great read. I love reading your opinion articles for the insight you provide and the facts you present.
    While Warrnambool has a four-three split of votes in council nothing will change.
    Once the CEO has made a decision, he has four rubber stampers.
    We, as a community, must keep up the lobbying.
    I will use the information you provide to assist my lobbying.

  3. Well said Carol, like you I find it extraordinary that renters should be paying the levy, ok, I know they run the businesses, but then if on going costs put them out of business no-one wins, and as you say most of the intended expenses are already covered by WCC and sponsors, why duplicate?

  4. Thanks for your input Jarrod. In response to your main point, I don’t think the traders are afraid of “change”. In fact many of the traders who have concerns about this levy have either supported or made a significant contribution to trying to bring the city to life, either by setting up a funky business, or supporting the laneway festivals, or contributing to business expos etc. What they are most concerned about, it seems to me, is being asked to pay a tax for something which they were told nothing about and which, as you say, has no clear goals. If was a trader, I would feel exactly the same way.

  5. Traders are opposed to paying this new tax at a time when so many people are struggling to make it through the month. Business has been extremely tough in the last few years and imposing an extra tax at this time will be detrimental to some businesses, with some people saying that this extra cost will force them to close or not re-sign their lease. It is important to note that this tax comes on top of a 5.5% rate rise across the city.
    All information that Warrnambool Traders Action Group uses is from the documents provided by Commerce Warrnambool that were posted on WCC website for last Monday night’s council meeting agenda. We have met with WCC to ask them the intricacies of this tax, as they are the ones administering it, and we are about to meet again with further questions to try and get some clarity for the business community and the community at large. But it is not easy to get any clear answers.
    The documents that I mentioned earlier are very vague and not only list a clear duplication of services already provided by WCC, but are completely immeasurable and this is not good enough when you are asking the business community to fork out $600 000 (this year, with a 5% increase every year for 4 years after that). And the WCC are stating at this time that their will be no redundancies made within their offices if this tax gets through. So we are being asked to pay twice.
    Commerce Warrnambool had a long time to sell this idea to the business community, and claim to have visited 900 businesses to discuss their ideas, however it is very hard to find a business owner that received a visit or any information at all. Secondly, they have been in existence for a few years now as a voluntary membership group and have made little to no impact on the community. This leaves people with little faith in their ability to spend our hard earned dollars to boost Warrnambool’s economy.
    Lastly, I would suggest that the perception that businesses are afraid to change is only being put out there to divert attention away from the fact that Commerce Warrnambool do not have anything new or innovative to offer. Every person that I speak to is very open to finding the answers, but it is very clear that not all businesses believe that this is it.

  6. Well well written!
    As a business owner that has also had a business in Ballarat. I am of the same mind, put it on the property owners heads and not the tenants that fix, repair everything anyway for a property that isn’t our own.

  7. We work our butts off to improve the rented property then they want to slug us for the hard work, that’s unfair, the more we put in the more they want. They want to bring in a paid for commerce, what has the council free commerce been doing all this time then. If I have to pay another fee for commerce to do marketing and tourism for wbool, I will have to pull out of paying tourism wbool, leaving people out a job and having incompetent people marketing tourism for me that will probably have no idea.

  8. Traders are not opposed to change, what they are opposed to is the enforced levy which offers very little innovation or fresh ideas. Infact it duplicates the very work WCC does and that traders already pay for thru their rates. I am quite happy for Commerce Warrnambool to be a think tank for business however it should be by voluntary subscription, like so many others Towns where it is successful and thriving by subscription. If they are so confident in their product why do traders have to fund it by enforced subscription. The WTAG FB page thas has been set up is to be avenue forTraders to ask questions to their many concerns . I am curious about the tit for tat comment …that would suggest that this is a game of which you are very sadly mistaken. The page will continue to post information based on fact and answersto the ever increasing questions that remain to go unanswered by WCC or CW.

  9. As a business owner who rents a building and freehold owner who rents out his building in Warrnambool, I believe one in all in. To improve Warrnambool as a whole a collective approach with a plan that suits everyone is important but to be run independently to wcc. A proper consultation with warrnambool business people looking to promote Warrnambool for the good of all of us, this includes making the decisions on supporting the salesyards or not, and pushing council with projects like the foreshore etc that will bring business to us all. I do not think the current commerce plan is right for the business people for Warrnambool, and I do where a suit to work.

  10. I would go further and say that all ratepayers should be surveyed whether now in business or not as this will get the opion of people that may be future business owners and also people that have operated business in the past. It is interesting to note that Commerce Warrnambool approached business some months back with a nominal fee to join and they did not get the support, so how is it that they can now go through the back door via council? Someting really stinks here! We do need to promote business in Warrnambool but we already pay Council to this. This levy will duplicate the services and the same old things will get pushed, Floggers Hill and Fun For Kids which are both already heavily subsidised with ratepayers funds. Well written Carol, it certainly is refreshing to hear the facts stated rather than a crooked biased representation that we seem to get from The Standard.

  11. Please note that two comments that appeared on this page under the name ‘Jarrod’ have been removed because the author did not provide a valid email address.
    Given this is obviously a contentious issue, we need all comments to be accompanied by a valid email address (which will not be published).
    If ‘Jarrod’ would like to resubmit the comments under a valid email, they will be reposted.
    – Carol

  12. Can we cut out the belated , fained hysteria and work together to move forward .Lets achieve a big picture .What is all this overreaction about !!!
    The actual levy is NOTHING compared to the rate rise that all traders and the community will bare AND to which there is minimal reaction!

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