FACED with a storm of protest from ratepayers at the prospect of a rate rise of 7.5 per cent, South Gippsland Shire Councillors returned to the drawing board, wrestled the figures and at their June 26 meeting approved a rate rise of just 6.75 per cent as part of the 2013/14 Annual Budget. Combined with a 2.5 per cent increase in waste services charges this financial year, this equates to an overall increase in rates and charges of 6.48 per cent.
Support for the budget and the rate rises was not unanimous. Councillor Don Hill thought the rise could be kept under 6 per cent, and he was supported by Cr Bob Newton and Cr Andrew McEwen.
“I just don’t think South Gippslanders can afford this rise,” said Cr Newton. “There are people out there hurting…If people are hurting, we have to find ways to pull our belts in. There are lots of ways we can trim the fat off the bone.” He suggested, for instance, not raising the mayoral allowance to the maximum, and heeding the advice of Foster ratepayer Meg Knight – “She seems to know what she’s talking about” – who made a strongly worded presentation to Council prior to the meeting – and another highly articulate presentation at the Special Meeting on June 12.
Ms Knight said later that she was very disappointed with the decision the council had made on rates.
“Their focus has been on telling us that they are going to zero base budgeting for 2014-15, but what about in the meantime? We are concerned about this year. We all have to pay for 2013-14 first.
“They still haven’t made the necessary hard decisions to reduce the rates, for example a freeze on hiring, a freeze on executive salaries, a review of staff use of cars, and general savings in printing, admin, councillors’ discretionary budgets, a tighter rein on expenses, no consultations, and no more spending on Coal Creek.
“They could have done it if they’d exerted themselves,” she maintained.
In her presentation on the morning of the meeting, Ms Knight took Council to task for not being anywhere ruthless enough in its cuts to expenditure. She began by railing against the costs of the executive office – $1.04 million for the CEO and his staff. “I wish I was part of the executive office getting over a million bucks!” She also took Council to task for failing to institute a freeze on staff employment and for sending at least four representatives to the recent local government meeting in Canberra.
“There has been no directive from Council to management to rein in administration costs, but we have to cut expenditure, firstly in administration and then in services.”
Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks responded that there had simply not been the time since the current councillors took office last November to do what Ms Knight was asking and still comply with all the statutory requirements. He explained that Council’s hands are in large part tied by cost-shifting from the state and federal governments. Council must do as it is instructed but is rarely given any extra funding. A case in point is the requirement for emergency management co-ordination, a position that resulted from the Royal Commission into Black Saturday and necessitated the production by local government of a raft of plans – with no state government funding.
“We are on the right track,” said Cr Hutchinson-Brooks. “We will be having zero base budgeting from next financial year.”
Other presentations on the subject of the budget were made by Malcolm Davies of Foster, Clive Hope of Meeniyan and Sue Svenson of Walkerville.
Mr Davies reiterated points he made in a presentation to the Special Meeting on June 12, specifically that rates for farmers are far too high. He said a system which will see his farm levied $30,000 in rates this coming year is clearly unfair. Calling for Council to re-evaluate its rating system and emphasising the widespread support for his views in the community, he said: “I feel very strongly about this, as do other farmers. I hope you have taken our concerns on board.”
Clive Hope poured scorn on Council’s Vision 2050 project. Labelling it “a waste of time, resources and finances,” he said that “crystal ball gazing is not the role of local council” and urged Council not to merely defer spending on the project but abandon it altogether. He also took Council to task for the size of its reports, including the budget papers, arguing that to put out such enormous tomes was financially and environmentally unsustainable as well as not conducive for community input. “This council is divorcing itself from the community, which is choking, drowning under the weight of these reports.”
He tempered his criticism, which he said he hoped was constructive, with praise for Council’s handling of Australia Day celebrations each year and its assistance in preparation of a community plan for Meeniyan and its “outstanding” assistance with community grants. However, he was damning in his criticism of the shire website, describing it as “a shocker, out of date and hard to negotiate around”.
Sue Svenson was even more strident in her criticism of Council. She argued that increasing rates by more than double the CPI was an indication that Council did not understand the difficulties ratepayers faced. She suggested that perhaps it was time to call on the State Government to appoint an administrator “if Council can’t make the necessary adjustments to the budget – the hard decisions”.
Many of the people who made submissions to Council, and many others too, were in the public gallery on Wednesday afternoon to hear Council debate the budget.
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said that he had been very impressed by many of the submissions from the public, describing them as “well thought-out”, but he felt that Council had done all it possibly could to reduce the rate rise. He said that the federal and state governments have in effect been “taxing our ratepayers by stealth” by imposing ever more tasks on local government, but not funding them. “That is why costs are going up and we have to raise rates accordingly.”
“Everywhere we can find savings we’re finding them,” said Cr Hutchinson-Brooks, citing the decision to manage the landfill depot in-house rather than by contract as one effective cost-saving measure.
“We need to be responsible,” agreed Cr Mohya Davies. “We have listened to the submissions, but we won’t be able to meet the expectations of everyone.”
She maintained that the dramatic changes that some submissions called for were not appropriate. Council had considered closing Coal Creek, for instance, but even that would cost $1.4 million upfront – and it would not be a popular decision with a large section of the shire. “But Coal Creek is on notice.”
She argued, too, for maintaining reasonable levels of councillor allowances, to compensate people who step up to the job when “people are not clamouring to be councillors”.
Cr Jim Fawcett was more upbeat with his analysis of the state of play. “Yes, things are tough, but we’re one of the most viable agricultural communities in the state. We’ve always bounced back year after year. Our people are resilient. It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said. He cautioned against paying less of the unfunded super bill for the sake of keeping the rate rise below 6 per cent, saying “we cannot afford to put our long term plan in jeopardy”, and said he was “optimistic about our community and their capacity to pay”.
He said he knew and respected the opinions of many of the submitters, but they should realise that Council would only be able to address many of their concerns in next year’s budget. “We have to walk the walk next year,” he said. “Don’t go away with a heavy heart…Measure us on how we do next year.”