The Mirror News

Rate rise wrath falls on deaf ears

RATEPAYERS who have taken the trouble to participate in the consultation process for South Gippsland Shire Council’s proposed Rating Strategy 2014-2018 and draft 2014-2015 Annual Budget have been left feeling jaded and despondent.

“I feel sad for our shire,” said Meg Knight, whose submission was among 36 sent to Council on the subject of the Rating Strategy and/or Budget. Like fellow Foster resident John McKay, she chose to speak in support of her written submission at last Wednesday’s Special Meeting of Council held to discuss the Budget and Rating Strategy.

She wondered why she bothered. “You get your chance but it’s fruitless,” she said, after noting that in the Agenda papers for the meeting shire officers had already recommended against making a Budget change in the light of her submission – or the vast majority of the other submissions. The officers warned that significant changes to the Budget could necessitate a further public consultation process which would risk Council not meeting the legislated deadline for the Budget.

At their Special Meeting, Council considered each of the submissions in turn. In most cases Council followed the recommendation that no change be made to the Budget – in effect dismissing the submission’s argument – and in most cases the vote was unanimous and over in a few short minutes.

There were a number of key themes in the submissions. The majority, by the shire officers’ own reckoning in their report in the Agenda papers, were similar to those received in 2013. Twelve of the submissions expressed general concern with the rate increase, while some expressed concern about the rate burden on business and/or farming. There was also concern with staff costs; concern with provision of services, specifically Coal Creek, green waste fees, shire managed caravan parks; concern with expenses of Council and Councillor Allowances; request for a library upgrade in Leongatha; funding requests from community-based organisations; concern on valuation of properties; and service delivery. Responses were drafted for all the submissions for consideration by Council. Submitters will be notified of Council’s decision, along with the reasoning upon which it was based.

In her highly articulate address, Meg Knight made an impassioned plea to Council to rein in rate rises. “If this budget is passed, ratepayers will experience a rate increase of over 25 per cent over the next five years…Council should be looking at a rate rise of no more than two per cent over this year and the outward years.”

She said later that her greatest concern was that “none of us will be able to pay the rates in five years’ if they keep going up like they are”.

Calling on Council to “burst the bloat of bureaucracy”, Ms Knight recommended freezing management salaries, freezing all new hiring, getting employee FTE (full-time equivalent) figures, currently at 261, down to 250 this year and 240 in the outward years, having far fewer ‘chiefs’ and more ‘Indians’ and halving private car numbers. She recommended closing Coal Creek and leasing out caravan parks, and suggested ditching consultancies and half the reports and plans currently prepared by Council, cutting catering costs by half, and making savings on conference attendances, interstate travel, stationery and glossy brochures.

Even more radically she added: “Put an end to paternal philanthropy – no grants – this is simply returning our rates to us; no councillor discretionary allowances; no municipal edifices to pander to Council vanities.”

“I have such a sense of déjà vu,” she said, noting that she had written and spoken to a similar submission twelve months ago. She has also written numerous letters to the local press and to Council.

In her written submission, Ms Knight criticised the consultation process. The written response from management made a number of points: there were community members on the Rating Strategy Steering Committee; Council sent a letter to every ratepayer encouraging them to give feedback on the Strategy; and three community workshops were held over the summer to inform the 2014-15 Budget – and these were not well attended. The community also has the opportunity on the third and fourth week of each month to make presentations directly to Council on issues of concern.

Ms Knight said that although she had been unable to attend the February workshop, she had emailed the main points she wished to make to the shire’s director of corporate services.

She concluded her fiery address with: “Let us actually do something – understand the role of local council – it is not a concentration on waffle and production of plans; understand what services need to be provided by Council and what can be ditched or outsourced; work out how to provide these services effectively and efficiently; list these services in the budget with accurate costings. Then you have a practical budget based on local needs which enables us to live within our means. Then we can all afford to continue to live in our wonderful South Gippsland!”

John McKay presented his views to Council just as vehemently. “The proposed rate increases are unacceptable, as is the rate at which the shire is spending money,” he roared. He disputed the visitor numbers for Coal Creek and recommended saving money by closing it and one of the shire’s two tourist information centres, but it was on the cost of council staffing that he concentrated.

“The ratio of salaries to rates is 50 per cent and this is too high. We are over-managed,” he railed. “Why do we have so many managers and so many departments?”

He suggested that the average shire officer salary of $87,000 was too high and that staff numbers should be reduced to 200 over the next year.

Mr McKay’s and Ms Knight’s were among a number of written submissions to query council employee costs. The management response was that reviews of the staff structure and the Executive Office structure were undertaken in 2013-14 and that “a sound organisational structure is required” to deliver the 120 services provided by Council. It was further pointed out that the Enterprise Agreement is a legally binding agreement that cannot be renegotiated and will be reviewed in 2016.

Mr McKay said later that he felt angry and powerless. He had, he said, raised similar points in a submission and letters to the press last year, but to no avail. “If anything, they’ve got worse. At least last year, Cr Kennedy, who was the mayor at the time, said ‘We got it wrong’ and agreed that a 7.5 per cent rate rise was too much and a sufficient number of Councillors voted against the Budget to alter it.”

Rocco Maruzza from the Port Welshpool Coast Guard was the only other person who chose to speak to his written submission. He requested recurrent funding of $15,000 per year from Council to support the work of this volunteer service. Council, however, felt overall that recurrent funding was too much to ask. The request was turned down, with only Crs Andrew McEwen and Bob Newton voting for a change to the Budget to accommodate Mr Maruzza’s request.

There is further opportunity for ratepayers to speak to their submissions in public presentations to Council today (Wednesday June 18) at 2pm and 7pm or at 10am next Wednesday. The Budget and the Rating Strategy will come before the council meeting at 2pm that day – June 25.

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