The wider Corner Inlet district community is backing an earnest bid to keep South Gippsland Water’s main administration and depot in Foster, following the authority’s recent announcement that, “a consolidation of facilities at a new location is likely.”
More than 50 people representing many aspects of local life assembled in front of the SGW offices in Pioneer Street on Friday afternoon May 24, 2019 to show how much they want the “water board”, as it was historically known, to stay in town.
Poignantly, among the most indignant present was historian and author Jane Vale of Toora, the widow of the recently late Llew Vale.
Mr Vale was the inaugural SGW board chair who served from 1995 to 2011 and was acclaimed nationally and globally as a water quality, supply and sanitation advocate. He was also a Shire of South Gippsland councillor and mayor.
“Llew would have been outraged!” Mrs Vale said. “I remember him fighting very hard for the water board to be based in Foster.
“After the [South Gippsland] Shire went to Leongatha [following Victorian municipal amalgamation in 1994] he worked to keep the water board here,” she said.
“Foster is the natural centre of the water board’s area.”
Leading the campaign to retain SGW in Foster is the Foster Chamber of Commerce, whose membership is collectively concerned that the threatened removal of about 50 local jobs would have a huge economic and personal impact on the town and surrounding areas.
Chamber president Phil Rerden and treasurer Kate Pulham said, “we don’t want to see SGW relocate.
“We’re struggling to understand what positives are going to come out of such an action for both the customer base and for local people,” they said.
“SGW has a lot of local staff, many of whom have made a huge personal investment in the Foster area, such as buying a house, establishing a home and choosing to have their children educated locally,” Mr Rerden said.
“We are fortunate to have pre-school, kindergarten, and primary and secondary schools available here in Foster,” he said.
“We’re reckoning that everyone will lose if SGW goes, because of the potential loss of literally millions of dollars from the local economy and from the community.”
Mrs Pulham expressed serious concerns about the possible flow-on effects of such a large-scale departure, including a reduction of government resources for essential services and facilities such as health and education.
“Fewer students perhaps could mean less teachers; our hospital might get reduced funding, and of course our local businesses and their viability are likely to be affected,” she said, “quite apart from our sports clubs and community groups.
“SGW has had good and caring relationships with Foster and district traders and industry for many years as well as with the community as a whole, and it will be a devastating blow if so many people and families end up leaving.”
Mr Rerden pointed out that SGW is a state government-owned organisation run under the auspices of the Victorian Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning (DEWLP).
“State governments have been very good at decentralising work forces to regional areas to bolster local economies and to take pressure off city and metropolitan infrastructure,” he said, citing the rejuvenation of Geelong and how it has, “given lifestyle to workers in a thriving rural city,” he said.
“SGW’s presence in Foster is a perfect example of how successful that decentralisation policy has been, and to take it away from here is ludicrous.”
Mr Rerden said, “with the help of our State Member Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien, we will be starting a petition, and asking our community to write letters to the Water Minister Lisa Neville.
“Please sign the petition when you see it in local shops and businesses, and do bring your letters into the Foster Post Office for posting so we may keep track of how many we send.”
Also at Friday’s assembly was Foster resident Adrian Rathjen who said, “three members of our immediate family are, or were, employed by the water board here in Foster, including my son, my late son-in-law and my grandson.
“Other more distant relatives work at the board, too,” he said.
“If the water board was not here, they would not have been employed locally and may have had to move away instead of staying in their home town.”
Tracey Daldy of Foster said, “what worries me is what will happen to the town and in the future, and how it will affect my kids.
“It’s not just a business, it’s the people who work here in Foster, too.”
Foster Rotary member, Bruce Standfield of Fish Creek, said that while Rotary and its fellow Corner Inlet district service club, the Toora Lions, were, “still to formulate a plan, the problem facing community clubs and organisations like ours is declining involvement and finding new members.
“An employer the size of SGW is important to attract and keep younger people and families, outside the retiree demographic, to take on roles in service clubs and volunteer work in the local community,” he said.
“We’ve worked for years to develop the lovely towns we have in this district; why wouldn’t the water board people want to stay here?”
Woorarra West resident Fiona Mottram said, “we need SGW to support our local economy, as it helps give us a better choice of businesses and services to enjoy, and because of the number of people it has who help to keep our area growing.
“I also think that Foster is the midway point for SGW’s assets that reach from Yarram to Wonthaggi to Poowong.”
Foster resident Terry Dessent agreed that Foster was the logical place for SGW, saying, “we’re about in the middle of the region, from Yarram to Wonthaggi.”
Former Shire of South Gippsland councillor and mayor Bill Davies of Foster said, “this is a growing town, so why take away an important industry – it’s ridiculous!
“We talk about decentralisation, and the water board is as important to Foster now as it has been in the past,” he said.
Foster resident Bill Gurnett also recommended that community members to, “write a letter to Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville to reinforce their anger” about SGW plans to leave Foster.
“It’s much better for individuals to write to the Minister, and 30 or 40 letters can make a big difference as the Minister has to respond to each letter,” he said.
“While a petition with thousands of signatures is good, it will get only one reply, but letters can be more powerful.”
Foster resident Vince Bucello said, “sometimes it seems as if everyone is against us, with big organisations leaving the area.
“First it was the State Electricity Commission, then Telecom, then the Shire, and now it looks like the water board wants to go, too.”
Comments heard from among the gathering about other departed industries and employers listed the Bonlac factory at Toora, the Barry Beach Marine Terminal at Agnes, and the Lands Department in Foster.
Nan Mackay of Foster said, “it’s vitally important to keep SGW in Foster, as the impact of removing so many jobs from our small community will affect us deeply.”
SGW REGION AND HISTORY
SGW’s current service region extends from Port Albert at its south-easternmost point to Alberton, Yarram and Devon, then west to Port Welshpool, Welshpool, Toora and Port Franklin.
At its geographic heart is Foster, then west again to Fish Creek, Waratah Bay and Meeniyan, Inverloch, Cape Paterson and Wonthaggi, and in the north and north-west of the region is Dumbalk, Leongatha, Korumburra, Poowong, Loch and Nyora.
In the early 1980s the Victorian Public Bodies Review Committee instructed that the state’s various water and sewerage authorities be abolished, and a new structure set up. This re-structuring was legislated by the Water and Sewerage Authorities (Restructuring) Act 1983.
Under this Act, the South Gippsland Water Board was constituted by an Order-in-Council in May 1984, and it included the Foster Waterworks Trust, the Toora Waterworks Trust, the Fish Creek Waterworks Trust, the Toora Sewerage Authority and the Foster Sewerage Authority.
The individual organisations were abolished, and their geographical areas, functions, land, liabilities, obligations, powers, property, rights and employees became the responsibility of the new Water Board.
The boundaries of the former Waterworks Trusts, Urban Districts, and Sewerage Districts became the boundaries of the new Water Board.
The Board was to consist of eight members, two each to be elected by the voters of the Toora and Foster Electoral Districts, one to be elected by the voters of the Fish Creek Electoral District, and one councillor to be elected from each of the three ridings of the Shire of South Gippsland.
The Order-in-Council was enforced in July 1984, and continued until a further program of state-wide structural reform took place under the Water Act 1989. Under this Act, the South Gippsland Region Water Authority was constituted by Order-in-Council, to take effect from January 1995.
This Order stated that the South Gippsland Region Water Authority was responsible for the staff, liabilities, obligations, land, property and functions of the South Gippsland Water Board from that date.
The new Authority also included the Leongatha Water Board, the Korumburra Water Board, the Yarram Water Board and the Wonthaggi Water Board.
The South Gippsland Region Water Authority’s main administration, outdoor staff and equipment were accommodated in the former Shire of South Gippsland offices and depot in Foster, with works depots in other townships within its region.
DANNY O’BRIEN AGAINST SGW PLAN
Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien said, ‘it was great to see so many people turn out in Foster on Friday at the community meeting, a really strong sign that the people of Foster are as concerned about the prospect of South Gippsland Water leaving as I am.
“I have made it clear to South Gippsland Water that I will strongly oppose its plans to relocate,” he said.
“The impact this would have on Foster businesses with 50 local employees being taken out of the town would be enormous and I don’t believe can be justified.
“There will also be significant impacts on those staff personally, most of whom live in and around Foster,” Mr O’Brien said.
“They send their children to local schools, they play in local sporting teams and they support local community groups. We don’t want to see them lost to the Corner Inlet community.”
The Mirror invited SGW to respond to the Corner Inlet community’s reaction to its proposed relocation.
SGW was also asked to provide details about its future plans, about its current staffing numbers and allocations, and its other office resources and depots.No reply had been received by the time this edition of The Mirror went to press.