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Australia: 'Not long ago, we buried him': The human toll of Coober Pedy's utility burden

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Rachael Tsakiridis and her family have not lived at the home they own for seven years because of unpaid debts. (ABC News: Haidarr Jones) © Provided by ABC Business Rachael Tsakiridis and her family have not lived at the home they own for seven years because of unpaid debts. (ABC News: Haidarr Jones)

Surrounded by desert, Coober Pedy's climate is so extreme, more than half of its residents find shelter living underground.

However, recently, those left on the surface have battled more than just the elements.

Mother-of-five Rachael Tsakiridis and her family have not lived in the house they own in the town for seven years because the local council refuses to reconnect their power.

Having bought their house more than a decade ago, the family arrived home from hospital after Ms Tsakiridis gave birth in 2014, only to find the power had been cut.

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"Luckily, my father-in-law lives next door, so we spent the night with him," Ms Tsakiridis said.

"We went to the council the next day, tried to get the power back on, and they would not put it back on — they refused to until the bill was paid in full."

Ms Tsakiridis owed the council for utility bills she said had become unmanageable — at one point the debt reached more than $13,000.

The District Council of Coober Pedy manages the town's power and water, alongside its regular responsibilities.

"I was in an agreement with the council to pay $250 a week; I was on a pension at the time, as well, and they were still trying to get me to increase it weekly," Ms Tsakiridis said.

'Unjust, wrong, contrary to law'

Earlier this year the council repossessed the Tsakiridises' home, forcing them into more debt to buy it back.

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But they still cannot live there because of the lack of power.

"We've had to rent another property; we've had to live with family," Ms Tsakiridis said.

"Basically, it's just put us further and further in debt and the stresses caused — we're barely surviving."

Ms Tsakiridis is not alone.

An investigation by the South Australian ombudsman found that Coober Pedy council's management of electricity and water debts for members of its Aboriginal community was "unreasonable", "unjust", "wrong" and "contrary to law".

The report said the council had also cut power without offering repayment plans, and had not identified customers who were eligible for hardship support.

Returning nephew's struggle with debt

Andrew Dingaman had been excited to welcome his nephew back to his country.

After a few years away, his nephew was moving home to Coober Pedy with a partner and four kids in tow.

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However, earlier this year, the young father took his own life.

"Not long ago, we buried him," Mr Dingaman said.

The ABC has not named him or used his image at his family's request.

Facing years of waiting to access public housing, Mr Dingaman's nephew leased a private rental and tried to connect the power.

The council told him he had a pre-existing unpaid utility debt of about $3,000.

"They wouldn't reconnect the power because he had an outstanding debt," Mr Dingaman said.

The family ended up living without power at their home for a week.

"He had four children at the time," Mr Dingaman said.

"He used to come back and drop the kids off with us because we had power and electricity."

Mr Dingaman said his nephew was pressured by the council to access a $1,500 emergency payment from the native title trust to connect the power.

Strain 'affected him'

It was not the first time the Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Corporation (AMYAC) trust had been used to pay off similar debts: So far, it has paid nearly $70,000 towards them.

"That's what they do with all of the residents now. They push them to AMYAC. They say, 'You've got a lot of money, that's good, they can pay your bill', " Mr Dingaman said.

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He said that, while there was no suggestion the handling of his nephew's debt was responsible for his death, the shame and pressure associated with accessing AMYAC's money, as well as the threat of disconnection, made his life harder.

"That would have affected him, the strain," he said.

In his report, ombudsman Waynes Lines found the council's debt-collection processes made residents feel pressured to use native title money to pay outstanding bills to the local council, a practice it said effectively "propped up" the council's utility debts.

AMYAC lawyer Michael Pagsanjan said the impact was plain to see.

"We're talking about vulnerable members of the community, higher levels of unemployment, alarming rates of poor mental and physical health being faced with this additional pressure," he said.

Coober Pedy resident Christine Fatt said her elderly aunt had been placed on a $200-per-fortnight-repayment plan for an outstanding debt while her only income was a pension.

It meant she could barely afford food and rent.

"She's got to pay rent for a house. She's got to do her shopping," Ms Fatt said.

"When her kids come up with grandkids on the weekend, they have to bring food for them so they don't cut her short."

Council 'overwhelmed' with work

Coober Pedy has long struggled with how to provide utilities to its residents.

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In 2019, the council was sacked for signing a 20-year deal for a hybrid power system to power the town without a competitive tender process.

After the sacking, the state government appointed administrator Tim Jackson to run the council.

He has apologised for the council's past practice, which occurred before his arrival.

Mr Jackson said the council was putting in place a new hardship policy and other measures recommended in the ombudsman's report.

But, he said, the cash-strapped council was ill-equipped to be a power and water company.

"There are some areas that we haven't made any improvement, because we are simply overwhelmed with the amount of work that needs to be done," Mr Jackson said.

"It's real hardship stuff we're talking about, and I really think it's another level of government responsibility."

Mr Jackson also said that, given the council was about $10 million in debt itself, it could not afford to write off the more-than $1 million in bad debts that it was owed.

"Either other consumers have got to pick up that cost, or the ratepayers have to pick up that cost — there's no-one else if the state government doesn't step in," he said.

The ombudsman found the administrative burden faced by the tiny regional council contributed to its failings, and recommended the state government do more to help.

Energy Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan pointed out the state government already subsidised power prices so they were at parity with the rest of South Australia, and was it helping the council tender for a private operator to run its ailing water infrastructure.

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"It's not as simple as, 'We got ourselves in trouble, get us out of trouble please. Make other South Australians have our trouble that we got ourselves into'," he said.

The minister would not commit to more help to waive the bad debts, saying the government already provided the council $150,000 annually for that purpose.

'The state government really has been absent'

With power prices at parity with the rest of the state, Mr Pagsanjan, the AMYAC lawyer, pointed out another factor many believed was behind the town's problems.

"The housing here in Coober Pedy is probably inappropriate. We're talking about a climate [that] gets very hot during the day and very cold at night," he said.

AMYAC chairman David Brown said many of the town's above-ground homes were built when he was a child, or earlier.

"They're poor standard, and that's why the electricity bills are so high. That's why water bills are so high," he said.

Following a scathing report by Shelter SA finding housing in the town was generally of poor quality, with homelessness and overcrowding rampant, the council wrote to the state's housing minister, Michelle Lensink, for assistance.

The letter requested a rental liaison officer specifically for Coober Pedy, to assist vulnerable people on the ground and adopting more consultation around housing solutions for residents.

Mr Jackson, the council administrator, said he felt that, given the severity of the situation, the state government had not engaged enough.

"The state government really has been absent in those discussions," he said.

"Even in the ombudsman's inquiry, there's no reference at all to state government programs or their responsibility."

More than $3.5m spent on housing work

Declining to speak to the ABC directly, a spokeswoman for Ms Lensink said the government had invested "more than $460,000 in maintenance and capital works on properties in Coober Pedy and $2.9 million in upgrades to houses in the [nearby] Umoona community".

"The government also offers a range of services that support vulnerable South Australians living in Coober Pedy, including financial counselling, accommodation support, emergency financial assistance and family and early intervention support," the spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman also said there was a Housing SA representative that was available to Coober Pedy and the even-more-remote APY Lands.

But, for many such as young father Aiden Brady, the issues have contributed to his family's decision to leave the town.

He said that, for Aboriginal people in the area, outstanding debts and poor housing options meant people were being forced off their own traditional lands.

"A lot of people are starting to move away from town because they can't cope with the electricity rates," he said.

"They're in arrears and they're struggling even just to buy food as well because they're still paying off their debts."

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