INDIVIDUALS and community groups took up South Gippsland Shire Council’s invitation to make formal comment on the Draft Council Plan 2010-2014, Budget 2010/11 and Long Term Financial Plan 2010/11 – 2019/20 with gusto, making this year’s submissions the biggest number ever received by far.
Contrary to preceding Special Meetings for this purpose, Council carried on a genuine dialogue with presenters which resulted in some requests leading to commitment to initiatives that should bring progress in the direction sought.
In the background, it helped that the management responses recommended for the items being considered at the meeting went a lot further towards connecting positively with the submission requests.
The public consultation sessions held around the Shire prior to the documents being exhibited also provided a firmer basis for understanding, trust and negotiation between ratepayers and their elected representatives.
The process and documents were not perfect, but there was definite improvement in communication and flexibility.
While a minority of submitters chose to speak in support of their suggestions, many put a good case, often accompanied by photographs, and a number acknowledged awareness of restrictions on Council’s ability to act on their requests.
During the four-hour presentation process, interaction was fairly relaxed, with discussion and questions going to and fro between submitters, Councillors and staff.
Where Council did not make concessions in response to submissions, it made an effort to explain the context and reasons.
These primarily related to:
- Practical affordability.
- Equity of action or provision across the municipality.
- Adhering to an objective process in prioritising projects on grounds of comparative risk, usage levels and the like; and/or
- Reviews and integrated planning processes that were underway or due to start in the near future.
At the end of the presentations, Mayor Cr Jim Fawcett tallied up that of the 14 public presentations made, nine had been included in the budget plan or listed for investigation or accepted in part.
“It’s a measure of success of the budget process,” he said with satisfaction.
By the time the unrepresented submissions were taken into account later in the meeting, the success rate was lower, with 25% of requests accepted to some degree.
However the Mayor was still pleased that it was “quite a reasonable reflection of the budget process” and felt that “submitters should be heartened by that.”
The result compares favourably to last year, when little flexibility was offered to submitters despite rhetoric that Council was changing direction and listening more to its community.
After the meeting and buoyed by the quality of the session’s interaction, Cr Mohya Davies envisaged that the trial presentation sessions offered by Council on the third Wednesday of the month from July to December – a week before a single monthly Council meeting is held – would work in a similar manner.
“It is constructive dialogue that results in getting things done,” she anticipated.
Altogether, 20 individual and 13 group submissions were made, plus Council also considered five “internal” departmental submissions.
The majority of group submissions came from this district, being made by Buffalo Community Group, Foster Community Association [several topics], Foster Medical Centre, Foster Showgrounds Committee of Management, South Gippsland Hospital and Toora Railway Reserve Parkland Development Advisory Committee.
Three groups from Mirboo North, two from Leongatha and one from Poowong also put in comments.
Some of the submissions were about a single issue while others covered a range of topics in a combination of the documents.
By topic, infrastructure was the favourite, accounting for 17 submissions concerned with roads/ intersection sealing, footpaths, recreation facilities, streetscapes, car parking, pedestrian crossings and lighting in public places.
However rates, financial performance, service levels, staff numbers, tourism, community buses, sustainability, waste disposal, policy consistency and more were also addressed.
A number of the requests for direction of budget funds to specific projects are already planned and budgeted by Council.
Some submissions were answered with comments that the matter is part of a wider or future analysis or planning process, or was an operational matter that would be considered rather than a strategic level policy.
Road seal requests for gravel roads with an average traffic count of more than 100 vehicles per day were acknowledged as fitting within guidelines for consideration, but were further down the priority list for attention compared to road seals in other locations that have been analysed as even higher safety risk or urgently needing action.
Council’s Director Infrastructure Anthony Seabrook explained that a program of sealing country roads is not budgeted to begin until the 2011/12, with plans to spend in the range of $600,000 to $1 million on sealing roads per financial year for the next 10 years.
“We review the roads on the priority list each year because things such as developments, traffic volumes and physical conditions can change,” he said.
“We have reviewed more than 20 roads with traffic volumes of more than 100 vehicles per day and we plan to seal the most urgent four in the 2011/12 financial year.”
In response to a question from the Mayor, Mr. Seabrook added that at today’s prices, it cost $250,000 to seal one kilometre of road “that has a good sub-grades [underlying soils and related drainage, stability etc] to start with”.
He explained that projects could not realistically be brought forward up the list in response to a submission unless because the assessment system would not be able to deliver consistent and legally defendable results, plus the flow of design work would be interrupted.
At most, two adjacent priorities might be swapped with minimal disruption.
A passionate presentation given by Kathy Whelan on behalf of Toora Railway Reserve Parkland Development Advisory Committee succeeded in gaining sufficient support to improve on the initial management response.
Ms Whelan underlined that Council had adopted a 2006 Management Plan for the park, that only a few works that had been completed since the Plan adoption, the works had largely been funded by other sources, and that the extension of the rail trail from Foster to Yarram meant some prompt action was needed.
She also elaborated on anecdotal support from the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority to work with Council on developing a retarding basin wetlands that would fill after heavy rains and solve drainage issues at the rear of the site while improving the environment of “a wasteland area”.
While admitting that the already-commenced Toora Integrated Planning process would cover some of the park’s issues, Council resolved to investigate what could be done in the interim in line with the Plan.
Foster Community Association (FCA) President Larry Giddy and Vice President Robert Fulton each made presentations to Council.
They focused on:
· Proposed development of Foster Station Park (FSP) and asked for its ‘community-based precinct plan’ to be mentioned in the Council Plan. A community grant is being submitted to draw up a 10-15 year plan for “an iconic destination halfway between Leongatha and Yarram”. A community survey in 2009 received 137 ideas for FSP spread across nine broad topic categories. Response: The precinct plan process is considered to be included within Foster’s Integrated Community Planning process. All three Coastal Promontory Ward Councillors asked Council to give this development strong support.
· A need for footpath extensions along Toora Road between Foster War Memorial Arts Centre Hall and Aherns Fruit Market; and along Station Road (past the showgrounds) hopefully faster than budgeted. The latter request was also supported by written submissions from South Gippsland Hospital and Foster Medical Centre. Response: Council plans to build a footpath up Toora Road in 2012/13 and will not be bringing the project forward. The Station Road footpath duplication is scheduled for the coming 2010/11 financial year. The works season is generally November to April.
· Sealing and line marking for car parking (some at angle and some at parallel) in the vicinity of the showgrounds, the hospital and Banksia Lodge. Response: Council will undertake an investigation of estimated costs for this work during 2010/11. Drainage and soil issues anticipated to increase works cost estimates.
· Improvements to parking and lighting in the car parks behind Main Street shops. This was dealt with at the same time as the traffic management point below and did not get a specific response.
· Traffic management to improve flows through Main Street’s shopping centre. While acknowledging that Main Street was under VicRoads jurisdiction, Mr. Giddy said that FCA found Council much easier to approach about getting things changed. He also asked for Council depot vehicles to help the commercial area by using longer alternative routes instead of heading down Main Street. Response: Council is negotiating with VicRoads for reclassification of Main Street as a local road to come under Council’s control. Traffic flows would be considered as part of the 2010/11 year Foster Streetscape concept planning.
OTHER DISTRICT SUBMISSIONS
· Buffalo Community Group requested sealing at five intersections in Buffalo township. Response: Low priority due to road alignment, low accident rate and low risk assessment, however they will be considered in a 2011/12 financial year ‘Safer Intersection Program’.
· Bill Gurnett of Foster called for strong, strategic support from Council for extension of the Great Southern Rail Trail from Foster to Yarram, including improved liaison/partnering with the Great Southern Rail Trail Committee of Management and Wellington Shire. Request made on tourism, environmental and community health grounds. Response: Website link suggestion supported when technically possible. Council is waiting on the results of GSRT Committee applications for grants so it can judge how much Council funding is needed.
· Gary Napthine of Waratah Bay and Gil Trease of Meeniyan (also a Sandy Point property owner) were both concerned about Council expenditure on areas other than the core services of roads, rubbish, libraries, weed control and other basic public facilities and services. The need for community strengthening, sustainability, volunteer coordination, recreation programs, climate change coastal management planning and emergency management services was rejected, especially in terms of increasing staff numbers and at costs predicted above the Consumer Price Index. Response: Coastal climate change, population growth and government legislation are real issues Council must deal with. Community consultations evidence that many people want the extended services beyond rates and rubbish to be provided by Council. Apart from Cr davies’ husband requesting less street-sweeping, the community had been unable to list services it could do without. The ‘basket’ of Council costs rise at a faster rate than the CPI. The coming service level review is designed to highlight and compare provision of ‘best value’ service delivery standards for rates.
CR LEWIS ISOLATED
During the submission session, Cr David Lewis isolated himself from his colleagues by voting alone against many road sealing, infrastructure and general budget submission decisions.
He argued that he was simply supporting what the submitters were asking for and that Council should drop expenditure on ‘soft’ services and extra staff in order to fund more rural road sealing.
“You can’t just rely on an engineering formula because it doesn’t take into account people’s feelings and they [submitters] are getting no equity because rural people pay at least half of our rates,” he said.
On numerous occasions, he insisted that Council was “heading in the wrong direction with the budget” and denied that ratepayers wanted Council to venture into “new areas” such as sustainability.
His points were countered by Cr Warren Raabe, Cr Davies and Cr Mimmie Jackson on the grounds that objective risk assessment by experts and consequently minimising exposure to risk and liability was a preferable, long term approach that benefited the majority of ratepayers and that pressures should not be accommodated in an ad hoc manner.
Cr Davies stated, “I feel sympathy with the [road sealing] submitters but we must take our expert advice seriously and follow the decisions based on the complex roads criteria matrix.”
Pointing out that roads highlighted by the submitters were not the only ones with problems, she added,”I commend our officers on their recommendations and ask them to continue their advocacy for grants and financial allocations.”
In regards to Cr Lewis’ support of submitter Stephen Vagg’s views that expenditure on waste management should only be paid for by ratepayers with kerbside garbage collection and those depositing at landfills, Cr Jackson added that Council didn’t just have to deal with “putting kerbside collection rubbish in a hole in the ground” but also faced significant costs to “maintain that hole” to legal and environmental standards, and in providing waste services that benefited the entire community such as rubbish collection from shopping centre bins.
Cr Raabe contended that Council should stick to putting money where demonstrated need was greatest and in an affordable manner (as per the Long Term Financial Plan) so that Council could capably fund and carry out the works and services desired by its community.
On two occasions the Mayor reminded his colleagues that they could not reactively direct expenditure to favoured causes without affecting the balance of funds elsewhere in the budget though they could have ideas ready for use “in six months time”.
After the meeting, the Mayor explained that Council would recommence preliminary work on its budget process for the 2011/12 year in six months time, in support of forward planning processes and to account for implementation of strategic work such as the Waste Management and Sustainability Strategies, and Integrated Community Plans. The submitters were thanked for their efforts in bringing topics onto Council’s radar and they were encouraged to do so again in future.
While submitters had plenty of warning about the date allocated for presentations, several advised they would have liked more warning of the time slot for their appearance.