Council Matters

The tide is turning – maybe!

Before getting onto tomorrow’s agenda, I have a good news story to share.

A week or so ago council’s Divisional Manager of Water and Sewer, Brett Corven, contacted me in response to questions raised in a recent edition of Council Matters, about the costs of water services in our shire: that they appear to be much higher than those paid in our adjoining shires. He invited me to meet and talk about the subject.

Naturally, I took up the invitation and brought along an acquaintance, being the person who had raised the apparent anomalies with me in the first place.

It was clear from the beginning of Brett’s explanation, with the notes he had produced for the occasion and the documents he had on hand, that he had put a good deal of time into the preparation of his explanation. And he was very ready to go beyond the 1 ½ hours he had already spent on the subject with us, but I had another commitment to attend to and had to cut the discussion short.

In a nutshell, as a result of my meeting with Brett, I have no doubt at all that the costs of water services within our shire are justified.

We are a small population but the water services are spread over a relatively large area, creating much larger per head costs than those experienced by residents in more densely populated areas.

Our water is treated. Bega’s is not. Shoalhaven’s water is provided by Sydney water and they also have the advantages of economies of scale.

The depreciation of our infrastructure is done responsibly, so that the loss in value of our assets is being properly taken account of and is being provided for through the charges made - to enable the timely replacement of aging infrastructure. Less responsible depreciation methods apply elsewhere. These depreciation costs account for about 44% of the total costs, while employee costs account for about 18%.

There are many more aspects to the complexities of the costings of our water services, including the impacts of non-residents accounting for more than one third of all ratepayers and the huge impact of very large holidays crowds on both usage and infrastructure demands. But they will need to wait for another time.

But, as far as I am concerned, what is most important in this matter is that rather than remain silent on the questions raised in a community forum, a council staff member has taken the initiative and made the time and effort to address these questions. For this, I am grateful; and I would like to think that this innovation, of actually responding directly to concerns expressed, of disseminating information, to fill in the gaps that are otherwise filled by conjecture, will be taken up by others within the organisation. Let’s hope that the tide is indeed turning.

Now to the agenda.

Item PSR17/024 Batemans Bay MacKay Park precinct Concept Plan – Contract variation (page 5)

In the “Welcome” to the Draft Delivery Program 2017-21 and Operational Plan 2017-18, the Mayor and General Manager have said that:

“The redevelopment of the Mackay Park Batemans Bay precinct at the gateway to our Shire will be a catalyst for change and new opportunities and our community will be involved every step of the way.”

It has been a little more than a year since the purchase of the Batemans bay Bowling Club site, for $2.7 million, without any apparent cost/benefit analysis, and so given the importance assigned to this project by the mayor and the GM, it is pleasing to finally see a report on the progress of the Concept Plan.

Councillors are being asked to “consider a recommendation by the Batemans Bay Mackay Park Precinct Sunset Committee to consider preparing additional concept plan and business case options for the redevelopment of the precinct”.

The options being presented to councillors are labelled as Option 2 and Option 3. The details are provided in the agenda but in essence Option 2 would involve breaking the development up into ‘north and south components’: with the proposed aquatic and recreation centre to be placed in the southern part of the precinct and the arts and cultural facility in the northern part; and Option 3 would involve increasing the performance/theatre space from a 500 seat capacity to a 1000 seat capacity.

When I saw “Option 2” and “Option 3”, I naturally wondered where on earth Option 1 was.

The whole report seemed to me to assume that we had previously been provided with a report that set Option 1 out. I have no recollection of such a report but it appears that Option 1 comprises the proposals set out by the Consultants, Otium, at pages 8 and 9 of the agenda. In any event, it would have been useful (and meaningful) to have had Option 1 presented explicitly.

Included in the report are the costs associated with engaging Otium to consider Options 2 and 3, being a total of $47,000 – a figure that brings to mind the $46,000 per year paid by council for its participation in the so-called Mystery Shopper program: directed to enhancing customer service.

If councillors agree to the consultants pursuing options 2 and 3, they will be agreeing to a further expenditure of $47,000 on top of $92,000 already committed as part of the current contract with Otium – making a total of $139,000.

Why council has not included reference to the $92,000 in the report may well be due to an oversight or that it was not considered relevant! But the figure will be found on attachment 2 to the financial report attached to the agenda. I must acknowledge this figure having been brought to my attention.

Given that this project will inevitably involve a Public Private Partnership (PPP) and all of the requirements that go with that, I see it as quite a challenge in deciding just when to seek private sector participation. If the concept process moves too far down the path before private sector involvement occurs then we may end up with a concept plan that is more difficult to ‘sell’ than if such involvement took place earlier in the process. The challenge is clear when we see that in its guidelines on PPP’s, the Office of Local Government has this to say:

“PPP arrangements (and any significant variation of a PPP project) should be fully considered, and be independently and rigorously appraised, before contracts are signed or arrangements otherwise entered into and the relevant project carried out or implemented in any way.”

And so, it would appear council is taking the necessary precautionary approach but, hopefully, it is con-currently sounding out potential private sector partners.

Just looking through what I believe is Option 1, at page 9, is the listing of a 25m x 20 m pool!!

Pools are obviously very expensive to construct and to maintain but it would be good to see the respective costs of a 50 m pool and a 25 m pool. And it would interesting to know, for example, just how far the current $46,000 spent per year on the mystery shopper program, or unnecessary legal fees incurred in fighting to prevent the release of in-the-public-interest information, would go towards pool maintenance. Readers may be interested, if not shocked, to see that for the December quarter 2016, $369,330 was spent on consultants and $77,275 on legal fees. These figures are shown at attachment 2 of the financial report attached to the agenda.

Item PSR17/025 Amendment to Wharf Road Coastal Zone Management Plan

(page 14)

Who owns submerged lands?

The Wharf Road Coastal Zone management Plan (CZMP) includes proposed action for the purchase of land along wharf road by the NSW government. Section 7.2, Actions for Future Implementation Beach ownership, of the CZMP states that:

“The return of beaches to public ownership has long been a foundation of the coastal management approach in NSW. There are currently 15 lots in the inter-tidal zone of the estuary, some wholly under water and two 200m lengths of sandy beach under private ownership. Public access to the beach at Wharf Road is a priority public issue. Purchase of the back beach area lots is possibly of lower priority compared to many other high hazard sites along the coast. Applications by Council to state agencies to purchase this land in the past have been refused. The restrictive zoning adequately manages coastal risk without the need for land acquisition. However it is considered appropriate to incorporate in this plan a priority action to purchase the private lands above High Water. This would return the areas of beach and the beach access to public ownership. In accordance with the judgment of Justice Bannon (ENVIRONMENT PROTECTION AUTHORITY v. ERIC SAUNDERS [1994] NSWLEC 187(29 November 1994)), the lots identified as submerged lands 26 and those areas of beach below High Water are automatically vested in the Crown and therefore acquisition of these lots is not required.”

The bolded part of this excerpt gave rise to objections from some members of the community, challenging the validity of this aspect of Justice Bannon’s judgement. Subsequently, the proposed acquisition – without payment – of the submerged lands, has been put on hold. The objections raised have been dealt with by simply side-stepping them. Reference to land below the mean high water mark has been removed. Specifically, section 7.2 of the revised plan excludes reference to the judgement (see page 24 of the revised plan).

The issue of title to the submerged lands has been put into the too-hard basket and it will now be left to the NSW government to sort through the legalities.

Review of policies

The remainder of the agenda comprises mainly policies to be put on public exhibition. As a reminder, all of council’s policies - numbering around 100 - are required to be reviewed within the first 12 months of a new council. As I have said before, there is such a high volume of policies being put on exhibition at each meeting, it is all too easy to miss a policy that is of importance to you.

Tomorrow’s meeting can be viewed on the internet by accessing the live streaming facility on council’s website.

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