Merri-bek City Council in Melbourne gains unexpected windfall

Merri-bek City Council in Melbourne gains unexpected windfall

The Merri-bek City Council in Melbourne has gained an unexpected windfall by fining residents for overdue animal registrations.

According to the council’s most recent mid-year financial report, the council booked $600,000 in revenue from animal registration fines in the six months leading up to December 2022, despite widespread claims from pet owners that they were unfairly fined without notice.

The council’s financial officers stated that the bonus income was one of the key contributors to Merri-bek’s operating surplus of $25.2 million, which is $5.7 million more than budgeted.

Residents have referred to the new enforcement measures, which began in 2021, as “robo-debt for pets”. Hundreds of pet owners claimed that they were incorrectly and unfairly issued a $370 fine for a late payment of a $35 to $60 registration fee for their desexed dog or cat.

Brunswick resident Robert Lechte, who has received a fine and helped establish the Merri-bek Pet Registration Justice Committee, stated that the infringements had caused genuine distress for many in the community, either for those who never received notifications or those appealing for leniency for such a large fine amid heightened cost of living pressures.

Mid-year financial reports for the previous year also noted another $300,000 extra in fines booked, credited mainly to animal infringements.

Council documents confirm how lucrative the fees for late payments have been: for the six months leading up to December 2022, revenue from fines was $800,000 more than expected, which officers said was “primarily due to higher than anticipated Domestic Animal Act infringements”.

The council confirmed to The Age that the majority of that amount – about $600,000 – was directly from fines for animal registration late fees.

The council has refused to reveal the full income earned from animal registration over the past two financial years.

In a statement, the council said it had received 1316 appeals over the pet registration fines since last July, of which 56% (about 740) were withdrawn.

The $370 fine for missing the registration deadline is set by the state government and is standard across Victorian councils.

There are currently 21,430 pets registered in the Merri-bek area, up from 18,809 in the 2020-2021 financial year.

Lechte questioned officers at last week’s council meeting over the huge windfall from the fines and said the justice group wants to see accountability. “I think the consensus is that everyone would like fines refunded and ideally given apology letters,” he said. “People are stressed out, there are vulnerable people in the community affected and something’s obviously gone wrong with a process change. It’s kind of like robo-debt for pets.”

The council said 86% of residents had paid their registration renewals before infringements were issued and that the higher number of fines issued “may be in part been due to the significant increase in new pet owners during the pandemic receiving renewal notices for the first time”.

“It’s really important that our records are up-to-date, so our staff have been working hard to call those who have not responded to infringement notices,” said Mayor Angelica Panopoulos.

“In many cases, they have moved and didn’t receive the notice or their pet is now sadly deceased. In those cases, we are withdrawing infringements and updating our records.”

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