ONLY half as many written submissions as last year (13 compared to 25) were made to the 2016-2017 South Gippsland Shire Council Proposed Budget, perhaps because the rate rise has been capped at an average 2.5 %, much lower than the rate rises of recent years.
Most of the submissions were not overly critical of the Proposed Budget, but some expressed general dissatisfaction, including with the level of rates, which in many cases have gone up substantially more than 2.5 %.
Approximately half a dozen people elected to speak to their submissions at a special hearing last Wednesday.
One of the biggest bouquets was presented to Council by Michael Lester on behalf of Prom Coast Arts Council and the South Gippsland Arts Alliance. “We couldn’t be happier,” he said, praising Council for allocating $20,000 towards developing an Arts and Culture Policy and Strategy. He impressed upon Council the importance of the arts to the wellbeing of the community as well as from a cultural tourism point of view.
Susan Hanson’s submission was also positive. She wrote to express support for “the proposed long term expenditure on a community and council precinct including new principal library”. She also supported “the proposed expenditure to revitalise the entry to Leongatha and Bair St; these appear to be key elements to achieving a more thriving and attractive township”. She said she had participated in a community workshop in 2015 and was pleased to see the extent to which the community priorities expressed than had been brought forward into the proposed budget for 16/17 and the long term financial plan.
Such enthusiasm was in sharp contrast to the submission from Vincent Morfuni, who took Council to task over a number of issues, including the annual expenditure of $432,000 on a media unit [a ‘propaganda unit’ according to Mr Morfuni], the increasing cost of staff, the unnecessarily high cost of a new municipal office, the favouritism given to Leongatha in the capital budget, and the too-tight timeframe for the submission process. He concluded by recommending higher expenditure on Venus Bay (where he owns property) and asking for reconsideration of the 200% rating differential on vacant land.
Port Welshpool land owner and developer Roger Harvey also asked Council to reconsider the vacant land rating differential. He suggested Council reinstate a Special Rate for land in areas suffering a downturn in the market.
One of the most comprehensive submissions was that of Foster resident Meg Knight, who also chose to speak to her submission. Ms Knight has a strong background in corporate finance and regularly engages with Council over financial matters, speaking articulately and forcefully. In her wide-ranging submission she covered zero budgeting and overall transparency, queries about the transition from HACS funding to CHSP funding, employee costs, council managed enterprises and infrastructure.
Ms Knight expressed disquiet that the 2016/17 Budget has an increase in staff numbers and costs, while “last year we were assured that the restructuring of council staff would result in a more efficient and productive workforce”. She said that the shire’s employee costs of 44% of expenditure compared unfavourably with the average costs for a large rural shire of just 36% of expenditure. “Why are we out of kilter with most other rural shires?” she asked. “Has Council undertaken a cost benefit analysis of which is better – employee or contractor?”
Ms Knight argued against Council’s decision to run caravan parks and Coal Creek. She went through the figures, concluding that “Council has not come within a bull’s roar of making an operating profit” at the caravan parks and at Coal Creek “ongoing losses of at least $500,000 p.a. make me shudder”. (Cr Hill later pointed out that the loss was now closer to $300,000 p.a.)
She suggested Council think more laterally about the need – or lack thereof – for a new municipal office. “The answer to a perceived problem is not always to build a new building,” she asserted, recommending option papers on future buildings and services be prepared and discussed by Council in open forum.
Finally, Ms Knight said that ratepayers expect the budget to be transparent, with performance indicators on services based on financial measures and social value as well as administrative efficiency, and “we expect to and from Council serious, open, respectful debate on all financial matters”.
Ms Knight did not say to whom she was referring in her last, pointed remark, but it is no secret that council debate has been far from civil of late, with councillors all too ready to swap insults rather than arguments. Several members of the public have also had to be reminded to keep their presentations polite.
Foster ratepayer Ralph Gallagher drew attention to this point in his presentation last Wednesday. He said that Council had been “dishevelled” of late and he was concerned about its reputation. He warned that if such behaviour continued there was a danger of the council being sacked and an administrator brought in.
Mayor Bob Newton thanked him for his “honesty and frankness”.
Mr Gallagher’s submission focused on the rate rise, which he said was unfair to a lot of people, being substantially more than the much-touted 2.5%. He also had concerns about the “community budgeting” process and the planned-for big spend on new municipal offices.
The presentations from both Lillian Brittain of ‘Spring is South Gippsland’ and Paul Katsieris of the Walkerville Ratepayers and Residents Association centred on funding requests.
Ms Brittain said that with Council support the ‘Spring is South Gippsland’ project had fulfilled its objective of a website supporting horticulture as a valuable social, small business and tourism element within the shire’s beautiful natural landscape. She asked that Council recognise the initiative as a priority project, worthy of support into 2017 and beyond.
Mr Katsieris asked Council to consider a pedestrian safety path along Acacia Road, the main street (also known as Fish Creek – Walkerville Road) alongside Promontory View Estate in Walkerville. He asked for money to be set aside in the 2016/17 Budget and for $20,000 towards a feasibility study.
By contrast, Walkerville resident Don Adkins objected to some council expenditure, specifically $130,000 budgeted for roadworks and seawall maintenance at Walkerville. He called for more community consultation on the project, which he said was only favoured by the 11 or so members of the select Walkerville Foreshore Reserve Committee of Management. He said that far from improving the area the work would restrict or even deny access to visitors.
At a special meeting on June 1 Council will decide on the merits of the various submissions and whether the budget should be changed accordingly. The budget will be presented to Council for adoption on June 22 and a copy of the adopted budget submitted to the Minister on June 23.