The Beagle Editor,
It appears that NSW councils, like the Eurobodalla Shire Council (ESC), not popularly known for their belt-tightening in tough times, are reeling under the IPART’s edict that rate increases will be capped at 0.7% for the 2022/23 year.
ESC has set up an on-line project titled “Balancing Act”. It asks members of the community to tell Council how they would like its budget to be spent by allowing amounts to be moved between expenditure categories in broad council-speak terminology.
Being on the website, the number of meaningful responses will be limited only to those who have access and the time to research what each of the expense areas entail. A relatively small sampling is problematic but the more serious concern is that only by cutting services in one area, can more be spent in another. The program does not cater for making savings or efficiencies – something that the community has strongly recommended in the past.
History tells us ESC’s 2009 application for a Special Rate Variation (SRV) was rejected by the Minister for local Government saying “Communities expect good financial management by Councils at all times, but particularly during tough times” and, then as holds now, “There was never a better time to improve Council financial management”.
Not surrendering, Council held a series of “Community Engagement Deliberative Forums” early in 2010 suggesting that if residents wouldn’t accept a rate rise, they must agree some services be cut or reduced. Residents clearly rejected this ultimatum-like proposal urging Council conduct an independent efficiency review to see what savings could be made before considering increasing rates.
In 2014, the then Councillors did approve an SRV but for an amount less than half that requested by staff. Consequent to this lower and really insufficient increase, the list and extent of infrastructure maintenance and replacement related expenses has compounded without incurring any additional significant commitments such as those now likely when Council has to pay for the Batemans Bay Pavilions.
Keep in mind that since 2010, no independent efficiency review has been held although in 2015, in its 81 page application to be classed by the State to be “Fit for the Future”, Council did write it has “an ongoing organisational service review program to ensure that Council’s services are efficient, effective, meet community needs, support the strategic direction of the organisation and avoid any duplication of services with other service providers”.
Any suggestions for a rate increase or service reductions will never be received well in the community. That applies especially at this time after the recent traumatic events and their adverse effects on the well-being and financial buoyancy of the community and all the more so if any of Council’s efforts towards expenditure saving are neither explained nor evident.
If ESC was “Fit for the Future” in 2015 and has the on-going internal service reviews still in place, why now are residents being asked what services can be reduced or cut. One could think the “Balancing Act” is one primarily for the Council internally and not so much for the community.
Let us hope the new Councillors will exercise wisdom in their budgeting sessions over the next few months and that they will insist on full, frank and honest explanations of Council’s position especially where expenditures have increased in recent years. We hope too, that they insist on and participate in a comprehensive community consultation and engagement process before being obliged to make final budgetary decisions. If it takes a little longer for
to be sure, so be it!
(ESC Councillors have been made aware of the above.)
Jeff De Jager