COUNCILS across central Victoria are pushing to raise rates even as their communities grapple with the economic fallout of coronavirus.
All four central Victorian councils that have released draft budget details so far want to drive up average rate bills by two per cent in the 2020/21 financial year.
They include the Macedon Ranges Shire, which is expected to release its draft budget after a meeting on Wednesday night.
The City of Greater Bendigo, the Loddon Shire and the Campaspe Shire have already released draft budgets for community feedback.
Some central Victorian properties could attract larger rate rises depending on estimates still to be made by the state's valuer-general.
A two per cent rate rise is the maximum allowed under a Victorian government decision made in December, before the coronavirus crisis hit the economy.
Bendigo's councillors have been debating whether to ease rate pressure through rates freezes and waivers.
Councillor Andrea Metcalf is not convinced two per cent rate rise reflects community needs.
"More than ever before, this council must prioritise supporting its residents over organisational wants during the challenging period ahead," she said last week as councillors considered releasing the draft budget.
Cr Metcalf will make a decision on those rises next month after consulting with the community but has previously pushed ideas to waive fees for businesses closed during the pandemic.
Councillor James Williams has argued that a business rates freeze would probably not be "targeted" enough to help those struggling the most.
"When looking at the rate ... there were winners and losers (from the pandemic's economic fallout)," he said during budget deliberations last week.
Some businesses have seen sales soar even as others have struggled or shuttered, Cr Williams said.
Others were leasing premises and it was unclear whether any business rate change would filter through to them, he said.
Mayor Margaret O'Rourke said the council was eager to help struggling businesses with rates on an individual basis.
She was concerned rate freezes could compromise public programs including building works, rubbish collection, footpath maintenance and other services people expected the council to deliver.
"(It's) a very vast business. This work has not stopped during COVID-19," she said.
It is a dilemma councils across the state regularly face because of rising costs, Municipal Association of Victoria president Coral Ross said.
"The reality is that if rates do not keep up with costs, difficult cost reduction measures will be needed including service cuts," she said.
Rate capping was introduced in 2016 to deal with perceptions the charges were rising too quickly. Before that, the average rate rise at Victorian councils was six per cent a year.
The cap has not come without challenges.
Cr Ross said councils were more exposed to COVID-19 than other levels of government because rate caps hampered their ability to react to lost income or increased costs.
Councils are now trying to help hard-hit ratepayers and businesses through the pandemic and deal with more requests to delay, discount or waive fees, she said.
Bendigo's council alone estimates delays with affect $10 million worth of payments next financial year.
So far, no Victorian council has asked for permission to raise rates above the two per cent cap.
Some have proposed revenue or rate freezes, including in Ballarat and Melbourne.
However, all councils are heavily reliant on rates to make ends meet.
Bendigo's wants 63.3 per cent of next financial year's $193 million operating budget to come from rates.
In the Loddon Shire, rates would make up 41 per cent of the budget. In Campaspe it would be 46.2 per cent. The Macedon Ranges is yet to release details in its draft budget, but expects to do so this week.
Many councils believe state and federal government grants - another major source of council money - will remain stable next year.
The state government has welcomed efforts by local governments to help communities.
"(We) call on those who have not to do their bit. All levels of government have a role to play in supporting their staff and communities through the coronavirus pandemic," a spokesperson said.
Macedon Ranges mayor Janet Pearce urged people to have their say on every aspect of the shire's budget.
"There has never been a more important time for the community to provide feedback, thoughts, views and suggestions," she said.
"We want people to be part of the decision making and we want to hear from everyone."