SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council is forging ahead with its plan to take over the direct management of the Yanakie and Long Jetty (at Port Welshpool) caravan parks, despite strident opposition from sections of the Corner Inlet community.
At the August 28 council meeting the council voted to reallocate the Caravan Park Reserve Fund (consisting of $397,477 and currently assigned to the construction of a new toilet block at the Waratah Bay Caravan Park) to assist in funding the set-up costs of the two caravan parks. Council also resolved to press on with its business plan for the parks – the very same business plan that Meg Knight described in a presentation to council on Wednesday morning as “54 pages of gumpf”.
Ms Knight, who retired to Foster in recent years after a long and distinguished career in the finance industry, went over the business plan with a fine-toothed comb. She didn’t like what she found – and she told council as much in her presentation.
She thanked the council for assiduously answering the numerous queries she has raised (in emails to the council in recent weeks) about its takeover of the caravan parks, but she insisted she still had two major problems regarding Yanakie Caravan Park, one being whether council should be involved in an entrepreneurial enterprise and the other being various problems with the business plan and budget.
According to Ms Knight, “any level of government should only be involved in providing services which private enterprise either can’t or won’t provide”. It is her belief that private enterprise is far better equipped to run a business. “Council should concentrate on providing core services effectively and efficiently and leave private enterprise to be entrepreneurial.”
Fellow Foster residents Bill Davies and Adrian Fyfe share her view and said as much in letters to ‘The Mirror’ in recent weeks.
“Instead of the council employing more and more staff I think they should concentrate on running the shire efficiently with fewer staff, and the operating of things such as caravan parks should be left to private enterprise,” wrote Bill Davies in a letter to ‘The Mirror’ (7/8/13).
“Running caravan parks does not, in my opinion, fit into the core functions of the shire and outsourcing is a proven way of reducing costs,” wrote Adrian Fyfe in a letter to ‘The Mirror’ published 21/8/13.
Ms Knight concluded her presentation with the warning: “We need to be absolutely clear – when Yanakie Caravan Park under council management does not meet council’s unrealistic business plan and budget – and a loss is made – it will be we, the ratepayers, who bear the cost.”
There was more along the same lines for councillors to consider in a presentation at the end of the morning from John Stone, who has managed Waratah Bay Caravan Park for the last eighteen months or so. Drawing on his experience of managing a caravan park in the same area, he queried many of the figures in the business plan and budget for the Yanakie enterprise.
None of this, however, was enough to sway the councillors.
When it came time to discuss E2 on the council meeting agenda, ‘Direct management of Long Jetty Caravan Park and Yanakie Caravan Park,’ the deputy mayor, Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks, came out swinging. “I totally and utterly reject that council shouldn’t be involved in anything entrepreneurial,” he asserted, insisting that if money could be saved by council doing something itself, then it should be done, and citing council’s recent successful takeover of landfill management.
“The caravan parks are leased out on 21-year leases. Council has a once-in-a-generation chance to change arrangements,” he enthused.
“There’s no God-given right of private enterprises to run caravan parks…Council still has the liability – why can’t we take the upside? We can always back out [if it doesn’t work]. At least we’ll have the figures then, figures which we don’t have at present.”
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said he took issue with the perception of council as incompetent, arguing that councillors and shire officers these days bring multiple work experiences to their positions. “It’s absolute rubbish to say we don’t have the experience or skills!”
Council, he said, had moved on from talking about whether it would take over the caravan parks. “Today we’re talking about how we’re going to do it. It will be a step-by-step process and it is incumbent on us to do the best thing by the community.”
Cr James Fawcett expressed similar sentiments, though he was more conciliatory to the opposing view of community members. “We have a right to be cautious about this, and the community has a right to question the new arrangements,” he said. “Some valid concerns have been raised and we will incorporate some of this information and derive a better budget.”
Cr Fawcett, who is of course an accountant, said that he was impressed with the fact that if the caravan parks were managed well they had the potential to provide a significant amount of money to council to spend on tourist infrastructure. “I’m comfortable with the process and that we will apply best business principles,” he said, then turned to the public gallery to add, “I don’t ask you to trust us. I ask you to measure us. At the moment we’re taking all the risk and getting very little in return. If nothing else we’ll be in a better place in two or three or five years’ time to put a better lease in place.”
Apart from the more general ideological question of whether government should be involved in the running of a private enterprise, the debate focussed very much on the Yanakie Caravan Park. Cr Jeanette Harding signalled that there was little concern about council’s takeover of Long Jetty Caravan Park. She said that at a recent meeting at Port Welshpool the issue had barely rated a mention.
“If other councils can run their own caravan parks, why can’t we?” she asked.
Crs Andrew McEwen, Don Hill and Lorraine Brunt also spoke up in favour of the council takeover. “One of the only ways in which council can reduce rates is to take a more commercial approach to services,” asserted Cr McEwen. “The benefits far outweigh the risks.”
Cr Hill said he was in total agreement. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Cr Mohya Davies was much more lukewarm in her support, clearly torn between supporting the Corner Inlet residents who had so vehemently expressed their opposition and giving council a chance to raise some much-needed funds. In the end, she sided with her fellow councillors, and the vote was unanimous.