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Another ESL rise as Govt stockpiles "enough money as possible for health"

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UPDATED: South Australians will fund another increase in the contentious Emergency Services Levy, with the State Government set to recoup around $4 million more in the 12 months from July.

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The levy will raise $292.4 million in the next financial year.

That’s up from the 2015-16 ESL take, which is currently tracking at $288.2 million – itself an increase on the $285.7 million earmarked in last year’s budget.

Announcing the increase today, Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis said: “I’d remind all South Australians that every dollar raised from the ESL is hypothecated by law for emergency services.”

“This money can’t be used for any other purpose than protecting our volunteers, our firefighters and our first responders,” he said.

However, he quickly reminded South Australians of the underlying rationale for his original move to scrap the long-standing 50 per cent ESL remission, arguing “I need to make sure I’ve got enough money as possible in place to fund our healthcare system”.

He said the ESL will increase by around 1.5 per cent in 2016-17, a rise predicated on upgrades to safety equipment for fire trucks and increased training for CFS and SES volunteers.

Koutsantonis said the increase would represent an additional $4 to “owners of median-valued residential property in metropolitan Adelaide”, but acknowledged there would be “swings and roundabouts” in how much people were slugged.

“It’s a very complicated way of raising money, but it’s a very efficient way that does relatively little harm to the economy,” he said.

“When the Liberal Party designed this tax in the 1990s it was designed like a council rate [and] it operates basically like a council rate where property value is a major determinant of how the rate’s applied.”

Last year’s increase of more than $20 million was justified by retrospective costs of the Sampson Flat bushfire, but Koutsantonis rejected suggestions that implied similar costs would have been accrued through during last year’s Pinery fires, saying that represented a “different set of circumstances”.

“I think there have been a lot of learnings from the Pinery fire and one of those learnings has been the equipment the brigades needed,” he said.

“We have an unacceptable level of unemployment in this state and we need to do all we can to stimulate the economy, while at the same time giving our emergency services the equipment that they need to fight fires, so it’s always a balancing act.

“There’s no perfect way of doing this [but] we want to have a mind towards keeping costs down.”

The Treasurer again rejected the notion that he should have reduced the ESL burden – by reinstating the remission, at least in part – in accordance with funds restored to healthcare services in the federal budget, given he had always linked homeowners’ extra ESL pain to the Commonwealth cuts.

“Quite frankly, what they’ve restored is piecemeal, it’s small [and] it doesn’t really take into [account] the large cuts they’ve put in place over the forward estimates,” he said.

“Those impacts are real and I need to make sure I’ve got enough money as possible in place to fund our healthcare system.”

The extra cash raised will include $2.6 million to retrofit safety systems to existing firetrucks and accelerate the replacement of CFS vehicles to “significantly improve the protection of fire crews exposed to burn-overs during bushfires”, as well as $1.5 million for increased training and support for emergency services volunteers.

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