BACK in 2003/04 South Gippsland Shire Council had outstanding borrowings of $13.51 million. Nine years later the projected debt is $135,000 and Council is on track to be debt free by 2013/14. The 2012/13 Annual Budget proposes expenditure of $14.61 million out of an operating expenditure of $47.2 million, no new borrowings and a general rate increase of just 5 per cent – less than most other Victorian councils.
Points such as these led a majority of councillors at a Special Meeting of Council last Wednesday to endorse the proposed Budget as a financially responsible document. Council also endorsed the draft 2012/13 Annual Plan. The documents are closely linked, with key strategies in the Plan funded in the Budget.
This Council prides itself on being receptive to the community. Certainly, community feedback contributed to the formulation of the Plan, although relatively few people took up the opportunities to comment when they were offered. There were workshops in October last year in Foster, Leongatha, Korumburra and Mirboo North, attended by a total of 39 residents. Participants were invited to complete a questionnaire asking for feedback on the importance of various Council services to them. The questionnaire was also made available on line and 59 responses were received.
An asterisk has been placed against items in the Annual Plan which address in part, or full, a need identified by the community. Council has apparently been listening to the community, as there are a lot of asterisks.
The proposed Annual Plan and Budget are now on public display and ratepayers are invited to comment.
Two councillors only, Cr David Lewis and Cr Kieran Kennedy, voted against endorsing either document. (Cr Jeanette Harding was absent from last Wednesday’s meeting.)
Cr Kennedy objected to the new waste charges for ratepayers in the Budget and complained that Coastal-Promontory Ward was being neglected in favour of other parts of the shire, such as Korumburra, in the Annual Plan.
Cr Lewis argued that the Annual Plan had too much focus on what he regarded as non-core functions of Council. “The core function of Council is to provide physical services to its citizens,” he said. He also felt that it failed to set priorities and was too general and quite repetitive. Council, he maintained, was spending too much money on staff. “This Council has been the biggest spending Council in the history of South Gippsland in terms of employee costs,” he asserted, adding that the bulk of the increase in staff positions had been in the management and administrative area and he considered this wasteful. “Things sometimes work better with fewer people,” he argued.
Cr Mohya Davies refuted this suggestion, saying: “You have to spend money to make money” and “I believe we have good management structures and our costs are plateauing. We have a proactive and more effective Council moving in the right direction.”
Cr Jim Fawcett supported her view, reminding Cr Lewis that the increased staff costs included superannuation and wage rises. He said that the organisation had until recently been “bereft of capable people” and “running on the smell of an oily rag. We’re just getting our house in order now.”
Cr Jennie Deane took exception to Cr Lewis’s definition of Council’s core responsibilities. “We are working very much in the 21st century and looking at a broad range of responsibilities – much more than just the physical,” she said. A Municipal Health and Wellbeing Plan, she said, was also important – and some budget items such as this plan were legislative requirements – as was looking after ageing residents and families.
Cr Deane said she could not agree that citizens were not getting what they wanted. Citing the example of the recent Sustainability Festival, which was attended by 3000 people, she said that people clearly wanted more from their Council than merely roads. She pointed out that the Sustainability Strategy had elicited the greatest number of community submissions of any Council strategy.
Cr Mimmie Jackson was absent on the Budget discussions as they related to staff costs, citing possible conflict of interest (her fiancé is a shire officer) but once she came back for the general discussion she praised the Budget for its “steady as she goes” approach.
“We balance the need for services with the ability to pay,” she reminded her fellow councillors, and said she was glad to see the level of community consultation improving and the suggestion to shire officers with budget responsibilities that new revenue sources be identified where possible.
Cr Lewis, however, would not be swayed. He maintained that the ratepayers he spoke to felt that they were not getting the services they were entitled to, such as better roads, for the level of rates they paid.
“We were paying off our debt, but now the money is going into staff costs,” he said.
Cr Fawcett pointed out that in the term of this Council capital expenditure had actually risen by 50 per cent, which was the same rate as the rise in staff costs. “We should be renewing our assets rather than building new ones,” he added.
Broadly speaking, the Budget sees a rate increase of 5 per cent on average. The waste services charges for garbage collection/recycling/street sweeping/litter bins will increase by 2.5 per cent. Overall, the general rates and charges increase will be 4.85 per cent for the 2012/13 year.
The Budget sets aside $5.63 million for roads, including $285,000 for the Dollar Road at Dumbalk and $530,000 for the Stony Creek Road at Stony Creek.
Among spending of $1.17 million on footpaths, $73,000 will be spent on a footpath for Toora Road, Foster and $149,000 for a footpath at Venus Bay.
No funding has been allocated to kerbs and channels or to car parks, but $915,000 will be spent on bridges and $442,000 on drains and culverts, including $64,000 in Wintles Road, Mount Best, and $133,000 in Harding Lawson Road, Fish Creek. Foster Pool will receive $55,000 to replace a sand filter and Toora Pool $175,000 to replace a chemical shed.
The above is just the briefest snapshot of what to expect in the Budget. It and the proposed Annual Plan can both be examined in detail on Council’s website, or pick up a copy at Council offices in Leongatha. They are surprisingly readable documents.
Written submissions are invited from the community until May 23. People can speak in support of their submissions in Council Chambers on June 20. The final Plan and Budget will be presented to Council on June 27.