RFS delays in paying bills hurting rural communities
Business owners who helped the NSW Rural Fire Service respond to blazes are begging the agency to pay their bills, with some still hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket for work they completed months ago.
In the small rural town of Walcha, at the southeastern edge of the Northern Tablelands, at least five businesses - including heavy plant contractors and hotel owners - have outstanding bills with the RFS.
But the problem is believed to be more widespread - Walcha Mayor Eric Noakes said he understood the issue "runs from the Queensland border to the Victorian border".
"They've saved houses, they've saved pine forests, they've saved national parks … they're not the sort of people to pull out because they're not paid," he said.
"It's understandable payment can be slow at this time but they cannot carry on being owed this sort of money."
Local businesses already impacted by the drought were hit doubly hard when bushfires tore through the area in late October.
Brian Smith is the owner of a timber transport business based in Walcha which is still owed about $485,000 from the RFS.
The work dates back to October when Mr Smith's company was contracted to work on containment lines in areas such as Nundle and Nowendoc.
He was previously owed about $800,000 but last week received his first payment since October from the RFS.
"It's a big strain," Mr Smith said. "We've got about 70 people working for us and we've got to pay their wages … the whole bushfire season has really knocked us about."
Meanwhile, Apsley Arms Hotel owner Kath Knaggs is still waiting on a $1450 payment from the RFS after providing accommodation and meals for staff at the end of November.
"It's very cruel in that we've got to pay for all food and beer and alcohol upfront and then they don't pay us," she said.
An RFS spokesman said the agency had been inundated with invoices and had put extra staff into its finance department.
"We apologise for any delays … a significant volume of payments is expected to be made in the next fortnight," he said.
One Nation NSW leader Mark Latham, who has been contacted by desperate business owners, slammed the situation as "appalling".
"The bush needs the money and it must be paid by the state government now," he said.
But a spokeswoman for Emergency Services Minister David Elliott insisted it was a matter for the RFS.
It's understood Mr Elliott is aware of the issue and has made the RFS aware of unpaid invoices that have been raised with him.
A spokesman for cabinet minister and Tamworth MP Kevin Anderson said he had taken action to ensure businesses that provided details of outstanding invoices would have their matter raised immediately with the offices of Mr Elliott and RFS Commissioner.