A CLEAR majority of South Gippsland Shire Councillors have dismissed as impractical a proposal from a couple of councillors to hold rate rises at two per cent over the next 15 years.
The proposal forms the basis of the “New Budget Strategy” written by Cr Don Hill and Cr Andrew McEwen. Cr McEwen was absent from the September council meeting (along with Crs Jeanette Harding and Bob Newton), but Cr Kieran Kennedy supported the proposal. His support was not enough, however, as all the other councillors in attendance – Crs Jim Fawcett, Mohya Davies, Lorraine Brunt and Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks – voted it down after a lengthy and at times decidedly heated debate.
Key to the strategy is a proposal to raise productivity through innovation. This, pointed out the councillors opposing the proposal, is already being done.
“It’s presumptuous to suggest we’re not doing some of these things,” said Cr Fawcett, who kicked off the arguments against Cr Hill’s proposal. He named some of the measures which have resulted in $5.8 million of savings in five years. These include green street lighting, participation in group buying schemes, savings in photocopying and use of digital technology such as the cloud.
Cr Fawcett took particular exception to the suggestion that Council should save money by not developing the shire’s major aquatic facility SPLASH. He reminded Cr Hill that the centre had been built with a significant contribution from the community and is very well loved and very well patronised. “It’s the most used piece of infrastructure in the shire,” he pointed out. Budget allocations for 2017 and beyond are designed, he said, to improve the facility so that it remains attractive and relevant.
Cr Brunt said she backed what Cr Fawcett had said. She added that she objected to some of the language used by Crs Hill and McEwen in their report. “The current budget is not a gamble, what is a gamble is to decide today on a two per cent budget!” she said.
“The language used in this report is provocative,” exclaimed Cr Davies, taking issue with suggestions that Council had been “spending like a drunken sailor” and “gambling”. “We certainly do not!”
“It’s not true that the rest of us don’t care. This is not how collegiality works and not how good government works,” she said.
Cr Davies argued against the report’s recommendation to stop spending on visitor information centres in favour of digital platforms. “We need to provide a range of options,” she insisted.
She said that while she acknowledged that people were being pressured by rate rises she was frustrated and disappointed with the approach Cr Hill and Cr McEwen had taken. In South Gippsland, she said, Council has a significant geographical area to look after and a lot of infrastructure to maintain with only a relatively small population.
“Frankly, I’m appalled!” fumed the deputy-mayor, Cr Hutchinson-Brooks, who was chairing the meeting in the absence of the mayor. “I’ve seen this report several times before and I have told Cr McEwen that we are already doing much of what is in it…This is hijacking other people’s work – plagiarism by another name!”
Crs McEwen and Hill, he added, had said they would work collaboratively with the other councillors, “but they have not done so for two years”.