A $160 million public housing rebuild is a centrepiece of an ACT budget that also hits Canberrans with hikes in fees and charges, including the introduction of after-hours parking fees in the city and surrounds.
The government anticipates significantly increased revenue from parking, with parking fees to rise 6 per cent, plus the introduction of paid parking in some city carparks on the weekends and till 10.30pm every night, starting September 1.
New mobile speed cameras will cost about $330,000 a year but will make double that amount in fines, raking in $680,000 a year from speeding drivers.
Among other increases, the government is boosting the fire and emergency services levy year on year. The levy, which householders pay with their rates bills, will go up $66 in the coming year, to $196, with an extra $40 to be added year by year.
Rates will rise an average 9 per cent, rather than the previously forecast 10 per cent, adding $150 to the average rates bill. The rates hike comes on top of increases of about 10 per cent in each of the past two years. As already announced, stamp duty on purchases of new homes will be cut by $1200.
But home buyers face a big cut to the first home owners' grant, slashed from $12,500, to $10,000 from January and $7000 from January 2017, saving the government $6 million a year.
The government will spend $160 million replacing 352 public housing units in Red Hill ($56 million), Allawah Court in the city ($45 million), and the Karuah Dickson garden flats ($18 million) and Owen flats ($13 million) on Northbourne Avenue.
The land will be sold, with replacement units built elsewhere. Separately, the government has budgeted $61 million for other replacement public housing, including four-bedroom homes and multi-unit developments of up to 10 units each around the city.
Declaring himself "as much the mayor of Canberra as I am the bean counter and treasurer", Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the budget was "unashamedly about Canberra's suburbs", with a suite of already announced projects to improve footpaths, mowing and town centres.
The budget also contains a $1.5 billion provision – up from $1.3 billion last year – for big-picture projects the government refuses to cost separately, describing them as "sensitive". They are the tram, for which the budget reveals a $375 million capital contribution at the end of construction, the new court buildings, the new University of Canberra public hospital carpark, and the new convention centre.
While the new convention centre, dubbed the Australia Forum, has been pushed back, with $5.4 million earmarked for upgrading the existing convention centre instead, Mr Barr said the project was still on the agenda, with the government to "shortly prepare options … to secure funding partners". Asked to elaborate, he said the government would seek to establish whether the Commonwealth would invest in a convention centre for the nation; if not, the ACT would look at a smaller convention centre, and consider private partners.
The budget forecasts a deficit of $408 million, with a $51 million deficit in two years' time, and a surplus in 2018-19. Mr Barr said excluding the impact of the $1 billion Fluffy buyback, the underlying position was "quite strong".
The economy was set for "moderate recovery", he said.
Housing, though, looks bleak, residential building commencements down 9.4 per cent in the year to December 2014 and the number of building approvals down 37 per cent, driven mainly by a reduction in units, flats, apartments and townhouses.
Debt jumps sharply from $1.35 billion in 2014-15 to $2.4 billion in 2015-16, a rise from 4 per cent to 6 per cent of gross state product. The budget papers are hopeful of retaining the territory's AAA stable credit rating, saying net financial liabilities as a proportion of gross state product are at 15 per cent, broadly in line with other triple-A jurisdictions (Victoria at 14 per cent, NSW at 11 per cent). Mr Barr said the triple A credit rating was important but "not the be-all and end-all".
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