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Deus ex machina

To the Editor

Deus ex machina:  -  "an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel”  (DeusEM) A catchy name to sell motorcycling paraphernalia and a device in the political theatre.

Deus Ex Machina comes from Latin and means “God from the Machine”, and it’s an expression usually used in Greek and Roman theater. When the actors were faced with a problem or a conflict, a crane (machine) introduced another actor (or solution) from outside the scene, usually some deity or divine figure (God), to solve this problem and thus allowing the plot continue. “Where Does Our Money Come From " Once upon time Eurobodalla’s Council's annual rate bill was a roads, rates and rubbish affair which provided a road to your home, maybe a park at the end of the street to kick a footy and took away your rubbish.  All residents had similar needs funded from the general fund. Over time reticulated water supply replaced the house water tank, sewerage system replaced the septic tank which replaced the dunny can. Water and sewerage was accounted separately as a user pay operation. 'Rates’ was a cost to service the property. There was little variation across urban areas - usually struck at an amount affordable to 'princes and paupers’. The level of the service determined by that affordable by the vast majority of the residents.  Rates were never, nor are they today, a measure of your income or your ability to pay - rates were never a tax. Income tax and other taxes are determined by the State and Federal governments. Today local government has taken on many more activities beyond just servicing property and the funding of these activities is less simple, more involved, don’t look here, look over there we have all this grant funding.  In short it’s become a ‘dogs breakfast’.   State premier Neville ‘Nifty' Wran used DeusEM to buy the pensioners’ vote by offering a healthy rates subsidy - hooray cried the pensioners! Buried in the fine print was 45% of the subsidy would be paid by the other ratepayers!  Eurobodalla has 25,000 ratepayers, 4,800 (and growing) receive a pensioner concession. However, DeusEM to the rescue for the ‘other’ ratepayers, ‘Nifty’ brings in rate-pegging. Move on awhile, local government aided & abetted by state government has taken on evermore activities and the rate bill starts to soar.  Nick Greiner, the next State premier, with his freshly minted Harvard MBA furled under his arm follows the selling of the State lotteries to ‘Lotto’ by his predecessor and starts the 'big sell' of the peoples' assets in the name of privatisation - toll roads, electricity, etc. the list goes on.  "But these are Monopolies who’ll just gouge us" cries the people.  Nick has his DeusEM moment and creates the noble sounding Independent Pricing and Regulatory Authority (IPART) to ensure nothing dastardly happens! By 1992 council's activities have multiplied, rate bill continues to soar ratepayers bellyache to the state government. Another DeusEM moment; rate pegging will be overseen by IPART to wave its magic cloak of control over those spendthrift councils. Over the years, costs (environment levy, stormwater charge, garbage charge, availability & collection) which were once covered by the rates bill now overseen by IPART have been allowed to slide out from under pegged restriction.   When all else fails go to DeusEM IPART's special rate variation.   State government wasn’t going to roll back any of councils' activities and have them returned as a State responsibility, no sir.  “Where Does Our Money Go" Well for a start there is us the ratepayers who, survey after survey, shows we want more stuff but we’re not willing to pay for it.  Each year our Councillors are faced with wanting to be progressive - doing at least what was provided last year and maybe a little bit more.   ‘a little bit more' can start, with a bit of State government urging, simply as appointing council’s first tourism employee in the early 1980’s to coordinate the efforts of the ‘mum and dad’ tourist operators who were the lifeblood of the motels and cafes which was Eurobodalla’s tourist industry. One employee who at today’s cost would be say $0.2M.  The same cost in the draft budget for tourism in 2021 is $1.4M. ‘a little bit more’ can start, with a bit of State government urging, appointing council’s first community welfare officer in the mid 1980’s, which one councillor strongly disagreed with as it was a State or Federal government responsibility. He only agreed when assured that it would be 100% government funded and cost neutral! The draft budget for 2021 suggests that its cost is a way bit more than cost neutral! ‘a little bit more’ can be a volunteer bookclub looking for somewhere to start a volunteer run library which rolls on to appointing council’s first librarian - "but he’d be partially funded by the State government". The Treasurer of that same State who today wants to stop any State funding to council libraries. Take any council activity, dig into its origins, what was promised, what were the expected costs. What are the outcomes and costs today. It usually gives a glimpse of why the council is so strapped for cash. Overcharging of water and sewerage so profit can be siphoned into the general fund raises two issues. 1. Water and sewer funds were once ‘ring fenced’, user-pay operations.  Profit creation, unspecified, is now permitted by the NSW Office of Water primarily so water is not assumed to be ‘free’ and wasted. However this aim is distorted by the incentive to maximise a dividend for the general fund.  Eurobodalla, in the same geographic and climatic area as Shoalhaven and Bega Councils, charges considerably more for its water.  2.  Approximately 20,000 ratepayers (mostly urban dwellings) are connected with water and sewer. 4,000 of these ratepayers are themselves part subsidised by the remaining 16,000.  Approximately $0.8M profit is contributed from water and sewer funds to the general fund which has about 25,600 ratepayers.   The situation is inequitable. It creates the seeds of divisiveness between the urban ‘townies' and the non urban ‘rurals’ with 5,600  of the latter ratepayers not connected to water and sewer, not contributing to the general fund on an equal basis. This is further exacerbated by a further 100+ lots which will be created by the recently approved Rural Land Study.    What should we do now Little is known how State and Federal governments will plan the economic recovery following the massive impact of bushfires and COVID19 and the effect on grant funds. 45% of council’s operation plan receives external funds and 55% from ratepayers whose ability to pay is also heavily impacted.  Perhaps it’s time to examine council’s activities. If not a core activity are they fully funded? If not should they be? If a State responsibility is it time for the State to take then back? Some, like tourism have changed since inception. No longer just 'mum and dad’ operations but larger entities headquartered elsewhere outside the Eurobodalla.  Is it time Eurobodalla tourism as in other regions, be managed by the local tourist industry with council having only a representative on a management  board and contributing considerably less than at present.   The State, funded from taxes is responsible for our health, welfare, education and community services. If those activities which Council does on the States behalf aren’t fully funded is it time to cease and hand back. It’s important that you and I tell Council our distinction between needs and wants.  How much more(!) or less we are prepared to pay. Maybe we need to wind back our expectations.      There is no silver bullet there is no magic pudding. Council's draft operation plan (the budget) is on public exhibition closing on 20 May 2020. Read it and have your say. DeusEM's  are out of stock. Ross Hayward Broulee

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