SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council held a special meeting last Wednesday to consider the 13 formal community submissions made to the 2016-17 Proposed Budget.
Some of the submissions were considered separately, some as a block, but the result each time was the same – Council voted not to make substantial changes to the Proposed Budget.
It should have been a straightforward matter. The submissions had been reviewed by Council and responses developed by shire officers, who also made recommendations, and at first the meeting ran smoothly.
Councillors noted that the project in the first submission – from Neil Breeden and Ken O’Neill requesting funding for a section of Hudsons Road to be sealed – was already budgeted for. The next two submissions came from Michael Lester, representing Prom Coast Arts Council and South Gippsland Arts Alliance, and were supportive of the inclusion of $20,000 for an Arts Strategy in the budget.
Council advised Lillian Brittain, in her submission on behalf of ‘Spring is South Gippsland,’ to apply for a community grant for the 2016 festival and suggested that ongoing support could perhaps be obtained through the development of the Arts and Culture Strategy.
Councillors agreed as one that these four submissions required no changes to the Proposed Budget.
From Submission No. 5 onwards it was a different story.
In No. 5, Paul Katsieris had argued on behalf of the Walkerville Ratepayers and Residents Association the need for a safe path for pedestrians along the main road through Promontory View Estate in Walkerville. He asked for $20,000 towards a feasibility study. The written response points out that the path is not included in the Paths and Trails Strategy which is used as a basis for council allocating funding for new path assets. It is suggested that funding could be applied for through Council’s community grants program. The response also points out that if the facility was built a recurrent budget increase of around $2000 p.a. would be required for maintenance.
Crs Mohya Davies and Lorraine Brunt reiterated these points. However, Cr Andrew McEwen argued that there was a great need for the path. “This is something that needs to be dealt with now,” he said, and claimed that Council would be liable if harm were to come to a pedestrian walking on the road.
Cr Jim Fawcett corrected Cr McEwen, saying that Council would not be liable. He further pointed out that there was no point in going to the expense of constructing an 800 metre path beside the main road only for it to end just at the point where the road to the beach was at its most dangerous – winding, narrow and steep. He advocated working through the Paths and Trails Strategy to explore the possibility of a complete trail from Promontory View Estate all the way down to the Walkerville beach.
Crs Fawcett, Davies, Brunt, Bob Newton and Jeanette Harding then voted for no change to the Proposed Budget. Cr McEwen voted against this. He was supported by his regular ally Cr Don Hill, although Cr Hill gave no reason for his decision. Crs Kieran Kennedy and Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks were absent from the meeting.
Cr McEwen went out on a limb again for the next submission, in which Don Atkins objected to Council allocating $130,000 towards roadworks and seawall maintenance at Walkerville at the say-so of the Walkerville Foreshore Committee and called for more community consultation.
Cr Davies said that Council should work with the Foreshore Committee to improve assets at Walkerville. Cr McEwen, however, said he had had numerous phone calls from people complaining that the work would result in a substantial loss of parking and would lead to people not being able to park their boats on the beach – and all because of a small elite who wished to keep the beautiful beach as their preserve. While the other councillors voted not to make the requested changes to the budget, Cr McEwen voted against this. He was again supported by Cr Hill.
Submissions 7 – 9 were general in nature and they were considered as a block. It was at this point that the veneer of civility in the meeting crumbled and the tone of the debate reverted to what has become the bottom-scraping norm of late.
Cr Hill attempted to move an Amendment to Cr Fawcett’s motion, but he only got as far as mentioning the $32.4 million set aside in the long term budget for a municipal complex before Cr Fawcett objected. He called for a ‘Point of Order,’ arguing that the Amendment should be disallowed as it did not improve but destroyed his motion. Cr Hill objected and for a while it became a heated dispute about points of order.
“Cr Hill is just trying to disrupt proceedings,” claimed Cr Fawcett and appealed to Cr Newton, as the chair, for a ruling. The mayor ruled on the side of Cr Fawcett, prompting Cr Hill to complain vociferously that the ruling had been made before his Amendment was even sighted. The Amendment, which called for the millions set aside for the municipal office project to be removed from the 15 year proposed budget and the media unit budget to be substantially reduced, was placed on the screen for everyone to read.
Bryan Sword, acting CEO in the absence of Tim Tamlin, advised the mayor that he had acted correctly and should now go back to the original motion, whereupon Cr Fawcett argued the case for not changing the Budget despite the views expressed by submitters 7 (Vincent Morfuni), 8 (Meg Knight) and 9 (Chris Chapman).
“We do take on board what people talk to us about, but sometimes we just don’t agree,” said Cr Fawcett, in a retort to Crs Hill and McEwen, who had suggested this was not the case. “Criticism is allowed, but it is not always valid,” he said.
Cr McEwen complained that debate had been stifled and a mockery had been made of the S223 submission process. Although the issue has been debated countless times by Council already, and settled by a majority vote of Council, he queried why money was set aside for a new municipal complex. He was apparently not satisfied by the explanation given in the written response to Meg Knight’s submission: “Council has taken measures to address how it is best using its infrastructure and reduce the level of its property portfolio. These measures include the Strategic Land Review and the Blueprint for Social Infrastructure. The Blueprint recommends consolidation of services into new community hubs to, amongst other things, reduce the high maintenance costs involved with managing ageing facilities. The Municipal Precinct Study addresses objectives of the Strategic Land Review as well as recommendations of the Blueprint. The Municipal Precinct Study researched current industry trends with government office spaces and analysed South Gippsland Shire Council’s capabilities and limitations with its current office accommodation and customer service delivery.”
The written responses to all the concerns raised in the submissions, including the municipal complex and the cost of the Media Unit, can be read in the Agenda Papers for the meeting (go to the shire website or ring the shire for a copy) and copies are being sent to everyone who wrote a submission.
“The process is as transparent as you can get it,” insisted Cr Davies, adding that it was entirely misleading of Cr Hill and Cr McEwen to suggest otherwise. “They try to make a farce of our proceedings,” she added.
The motion to leave the Budget unchanged went through without the support of Crs Hill and McEwen.
The remaining submissions were less controversial. The motions not to change the Budget because of them were passed unanimously, although Crs Hill and McEwen could not resist a few digs along the way.
Cr Davies agreed with submitter Roger Harvey that rates for vacant land were very expensive, but said it was not appropriate to change the Rating Strategy yet, though it will be reviewed at some point. Cr McEwen said he thought the rate burden was onerous and asked for his concern to be noted.
Cr Hill said that it was not just vacant landowners who paid excessive rates, but others do, too. “We should remove items from the Budget,” he asserted provocatively.
Susan Hanson’s submission was supportive of “the proposed long term expenditure on a community and council precinct including new principal library” and therefore required no action.
Dan Monaghan, on behalf of the Leongatha Basketball Association, requested a reduction in SPLASH fees, but this was refused.
In the final submission Gus Blauw sought more detailed budgetary figures, but his request was refused.
The meeting concluded with Council thanking the community members for their submissions and voting to advise them in writing of the decision.
“Do not ever let the S223 submission process be maligned,” said Cr Fawcett. “It can be very effective and community members are encouraged to make use of it because it does work.”
Whereupon Cr Hill queried how many submitters had actually got anything through in the three years of the current council and said he did not think there was a very good success rate.
“I would welcome a response to Cr Hill’s question,” said Cr Fawcett. “You’d be surprised.”
Cr McEwen said he wished to place on record that councillors made a decision at an informal meeting to discuss submissions as a block and as a result “the really substantial issues” hadn’t been discussed. “We should be prepared to say why we’re budgeting $32 million for a building the CEO says we don’t need.”
Cr Davies said that submitters were responded to in writing. Cr Fawcett agreed. Pointing out that some submissions were generic in nature, he advised submitters to be specific if they wanted a specific response. “You have to take some submissions with a grain of salt,” he added. “They raise issues but then launch into a tirade against Council. We’re certainly open and transparent,” he concluded.