The Mirror News

COVID-19 prompts shire panel to defer council budget, plan

THE COVID-19 outbreak has prompted South Gippsland Shire’s administration panel to defer endorsing the municipality’s draft 2020/2021 budget and proposed 2020-2024 plan at least until the next ordinary council meeting on Wednesday April 22, 2020.

Panel chair Julie Eisenbise and administrator Christian Zahra voted at the ordinary meeting on Wednesday March 25 to roll the two “council fundamentals” over to allow more time to consider “the impacts of COVID-19 would have on the community.

The deferrals are “due to the extraordinary circumstances arising from the COVID-19 pandemic” and will continue “until such time as the council can consider the implications arising from the pandemic” on the South Gippsland Shire.

“We want to determine the best course of action in order to provide local support in this crisis,” the administrators said.

“The Proposed Council Plan and Draft Annual Budget will then be updated to reflect such actions.”

Ms Eisenbise’s alternative motion, to defer rather than endorse the draft budget and proposed plan, also included a call to the shire’s new chief executive officer Kerryn Ellis to prepare a further report “to consider options” to deal with the effect of the pandemic.

“An incredible amount of work has gone into the both the draft budget and the plan,” the panel chair told an almost-empty council chamber, where there were minimum shire staff attending but no public gallery nor members of the Press because of social distancing.

Speaking to cameras livestreaming the meeting, Ms Eisenbise said the two documents had already “been looked at for a long time.

“The decision of the administrators is to defer as we are not comfortable with not knowing what the cost of COVID-19 will be and what the cost of the council services that may be required will be.

“It’s vital to consider how current circumstances would impact the South Gippsland community and to find ways to assist,” she said.

“It is our intention at this stage to work with our staff over the next few weeks to re-frame the budget in time for the April meeting and to consider what COVID-19 might mean long term for South Gippsland.

“Our community is at the heart of what we do so we need to work out the best way for us to support them to recover and rebuild in response to this virus.

“We all need to work together and support each other while we deal with COVID-19,” Ms Eisenbise said.

“This deferral will ensure we can do our due diligence when it comes to preparing for our future while COVID-19 is a risk to our community.

“All Victorian councils are required by law to provide their annual budgets to the State Minister for Local Government by June 30 each year,” she said.

“The South Gippsland Shire Council intends to work quickly to identify community support measures and will revisit the items at the April council meeting.”

Mr Zahra said “the development of the annual budget and the plan is something that the council officers rightfully plan for and we invest significant resources to produce them.

“We are in a situation where the best-laid plans that predetermine the process and timeframe of our primary documents have changed in terms of how we best act for our local community through rates and charges and how we spend ratepayers’ money,” he said.

“No-one could have possible foreseen such a fast-moving epidemic as we are experiencing with COVID-19, and it’s right that we think carefully about what the implications are.

“Just one week ago we were in a very different situation, and I think that next week and the following week will be different again,” Mr Zahra said.

“It’s important that when we do consider the budget and the plan, we do so with the best understanding possible as we must meet the most pressing and current needs of the South Gippsland community.”

The third member of the administration panel, Rick Brown, had leave of absence for the March 2020 ordinary meeting.

An executive summary in the minutes of the March 25, 2020 ordinary meeting describes the shire’s annual budget as “a fundamental document for Council as it outlines our future financial and other resource planning to support delivery of the Council Plan.

“At its core, the Council Budget notes our aspirations for the year ahead – how we intend to serve the community with the services and facilities we provide and incorporates community feedback and input about future community priorities,” the summary states.

The three formal steps required by the Local Government Act 1989 for council budgets are preparation, a public submission process, and formal adoption.

The minutes also stated that the administration panel “considered a review of the Council Plan 2017-2021 – Revised 2019” at the March 2020 ordinary meeting.

The panel “determined it was appropriate to create a new four-year Council Plan to guide the term of Administrators and the commencement of the new Council’s term, to be elected in October 2021.”

Both the draft 2020/2021 budget and proposed 2020-2024 plan are available on the South Gippsland Shire Council website at www.southgippsland.vic.gov.au via the Your Council and Council Meetings links to the March 2020 ordinary meeting agenda, minutes and attachments. Watch the South Gippsland Shire Council Meeting from 2 pm on Wednesday April 22, 2020 via livestream at www.southgippsland.vic.gov.au/live

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