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Mackay Park: carpe diem – just get on with it

In 1908 a man called F M Cornford published a wonderful little “Guide for the young academic politician”. It is a marvellous document and some of the contributions at this morning’s Extraordinary Council Meeting brought it to mind. Among its many pearls of wisdom is the following paragraph:

“The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.

This morning’s Extraordinary Council Meeting was called to consider conceptual options for the development of the Mackay Park Precinct in Batemans Bay. Council commissioned a Study to develop options and an associated business case. This Study is now published and you can find it here. In short the preferred option is to build a combined aquatic centre and an arts centre. The Study is not in fact a business case; rather it is a cost case. It identifies how much it would cost to build the new facilities and estimates how much it would cost to operate them. The other side of this equation are the benefits. The benefits will be identified through an economic assessment which will say why and to what extent the Shire will be better of for the construction and operation of a new facility at Mackay Park. That assessment has not yet been published but I look forward to it.

The business case Study was done in order to determine options. Council had bought the land and now needs to work out how to generate a return on its investment. This is a sensible thing to do. The timing of the Study turned out to be serendipitous for in June the NSW State Treasurer announced that the State Government was predicting a $4.5bn surplus. Now in spite of the bleating of government treasurers of any and all descriptions, budget surpluses are not necessarily a good thing. A government in surplus is, in principle, over-taxing its citizens. Now, there are ups and downs in this but $4.5bn is a big up. The State Government needs to get shot of some of this money and has created a grants program to help them do this. This grants program is designed to dish out big money and the proposed Mackay Park development, at a little short of $50m, is big money. The trouble is that the applications need be in very short order, like next week. This means that a lot of Council staff (and no doubt several consultants) will be burning the midnight oil to make a submission.

As a piece of consulting this is a solid piece of work, whether or not you agree with its conclusions and recommendations

As is usually the case with a Council meeting there is an item called “Deputations from the Public Gallery”. This is where concerned, aggrieved, or enthusiastic citizens can provide their views on the substantive agenda items. It was during these half a dozen submissions that I was reminded of F M Cornford’s Principle of Dangerous Precedent. There was a view presented to Council that not enough information had been collected, that the financial considerations had not been carefully thought through and that there had been inadequate consultation. That may all be the case but the Council that does not grasp opportunities is a weak Council indeed.

The second major view expressed seemed to be that a 25 metre pool was not appropriate. A 50 metre pool was what was needed. Yet a read of the business case Study shows that a 50 metre pool would cost an extra $6.5m in capital outlay and about $2.5m in operating costs (over 10 years). None of the people who spoke so enthusiastically about the demand for a 50 meter pool made any clear suggestion about what should be dropped to pay for it.

The third major concern was that we, the ratepayers, would need to bale out the new centre should its operation not go to plan. The Mayor was able to give a reasonable assurance about the capital component of the development. The risk of capital over-runs exists but can probably be mitigated. She was silent, however, on the risk associated with operation overruns; this is a risk that is trickier to mitigate. But no worthwhile project is risk-free. The trick is to mange the risks. The Mayor assures us that all will be well. She must, of course, say this but she should have her fingers crossed behind her back and must ensure that adequate panning safeguards are developed to mitigate the risks to ratepayers.

Of course, the Council meeting was as other Council meetings. We collected as we went in a piece of paper that showed the recommendations that were to be put to Council. As we sat down the screen at the front changed to show that the recommendations to be put to the Council were different. It was impossible to see at a glance in what way they were different. I don’t necessarily have a problem with changing the agenda in real-time but technology is now such that those changes can be communicated in real-time. I tried to connect to the wifi network called ESC Guest but that needed a password. This documentation can be made available and it should be; that’s not hard. Nonetheless, we knew that Council would adopt the recommendation and so it did.

Above: The Mayor assures us that it will be all right

And it was right to do so. The Mayor commented at the end that a debate about leisure facilities in Batemans Bay has been going on for two decades. “Now is not the time, “ she said, “to find reasons not to act. We have an opportunity and that opportunity should be seized.” In my humble opinion, she is absolutely right. Let the public servants do their bit. Let us get the money and work out how to turn the concept into reality.

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