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Bushfire contractors owed hundreds of thousands of dollars by NSW Rural Fire Service

By national drought and regional affairs reporter Lucy Barbour, Tuesday January 28, 2020 - 10:38 EDT
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Business owners say those affected are hesitant to speak out for fear of causing trouble. - ABC licensed

Businesses who were employed to help battle fires in northern New South Wales five months ago are yet to be paid by the state's Rural Fire Service.

The ABC understands contractors and businesses from Walcha that provided machinery such as bulldozers to clear fire breaks, as well as fuel and food, are owed about $1 million combined.

Brian Smith, who owns a timber transport business and said he was owed almost $500,000, said has already received $315,000.

His business, which employs 70 people, helped put control lines in to protect houses and properties in the Nundle and Nowendoc fires.

He said the delay in payment had hurt his company "big time" and really "knocked us about".

In addition to the delay, Mr Smith his company had not been able to take on other work before Christmas because it was too busy working on fires.

Other Walcha business owners say those affected are hesitant to speak out for fear of causing trouble.

But despite chasing their money for months, little has been paid out.

Some businesses have received payments but one who had not told the ABC their company was still owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

They said bills were stacking up, causing some contractors to dip into personal bank accounts to stay afloat.

'Very stressful'

Rural vet supplies store owner Peter King said the issue had dragged on far too long and he expressed serious concerns about the community's general wellbeing.

"They've had to finance it … it's been a very stressful situation for them. To the point that people have been very concerned about their mental health as well," he said.

"Everyone's struggling as it is and yet the worst creditor affecting the town is the state government."

Contractors helped manage fires in the Nundle, Stockyard Creek, Winterborne and Ebor areas, and some began in early September last year.

MP says process must improve

Tamworth MP Kevin Anderson said he has been approached by a number of businesses who have not been paid.

Mr Anderson says he has been in direct contact with the state's Emergency Services Minister, David Elliott, to discuss the unpaid invoices.

"I immediately contacted the minister's office and he requested that invoices be sent directly to him," Mr Anderson said.

"We've been able to get partly paid — some action and some money is flowing back to those businesses, but, on occassions, not all of it.

"It's something that does need to be looked at and when this is sorted, we absolutely need to look at how we streamline and get this process better.

"It's extremely upsetting and as a small business owner you can't carry that debt."

The State Emergency Minister's office advised that questions be referred to the RFS.

Contractors stretched, RFS says

In a statement, the NSW RFS blamed the backlog on an unprecedented bushfire season.

"The additional capacity of work being undertaken by contractors has consequently increased considerably, as has the associated administrative tasks," a NSW RFS spokesperson said.

"We apologise for any delays while we undertake this process and ask for patience while additional personnel have been put on to assist dealing with the backlog.

"A significant volume of payments is expected to be made in the next fortnight."

But Mr King doubted whether progress would be made any time soon.

"Every time we get told they're going to get paid next week, a week goes past … and still no money," he said.

"They keep on blaming the paperwork trail because the other problem they've got is the system is so antiquated — they're still using manual purchase orders to do all this.

"That can take three days to get past, it's a very antiquated system — the whole process is very outdated."


© ABC 2020

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