desal-plantThere’s a privately owned, $5.7 billion business just up the road from Wonthaggi not paying its share of shire rates.

THE chances of the privately owned and operated Victorian Desalination Plant paying rates to the Bass Coast Shire Council, and therefore subsidising the rates that the rest of us pay, seem to be slipping away with the passage of time. And neither the Bass Coast Shire Council nor its CEO Allan Bawden seem inclined to do much about it. Prompted by a question on the same subject, put to council back on June 15 last year, by regular shire inquisitor Maurice Schinkel of Cowes, the Sentinel-Times put some follow-up questions to the shire. Back then, Mr Schinkel asked: “Why is Council considering forgoing 30 years of rate revenue from Victorian Desalination project properties in exchange for the construction of a Cultural Centre Precinct, and who will be responsible for the ongoing maintenance costs of this Precinct, and is Council aware if such an arrangement to forgo rates has ever been implemented previously in the State of Victoria?” At the time, Mr Bawden responded that Council has always held the view that the desalination project should contribute to Council’s rates base and has sought a rating agreement. “It may have been assumed that Council would receive an annual payment however Council has not ruled out a lump sum payment,” Mr Bawden said. “The opportunity for the development of a visionary project such as the Bass Coast Cultural precinct was first explored in Council’s EES submission to the desalination project. The establishment of the precinct would be of great benefit to the region and would benefit current and future generations. “In relation to ongoing costs these will be explored as part of the business case that is being developed for the project. I would suggest that multiple types of arrangements exist across Victorian local government in relation to major infrastructure projects.” In the absence of any follow up by either the council or its bureaucracy, the Sentinel-Times put the following questions to council: Question 1: “Where are the shire’s negotiations at with the state government in relation to rates/lump sum payment for the desalination plant?” Answer 1: “The Minister for Water, who is responsible for the Victorian Desalination Project has endorsed discussions continuing on the development of the Bass Coast Cultural Precinct incorporating as Stage 1, a new Principal Library for the Shire and a regional art gallery. The timing on this project depends on the relocation of the Wonthaggi Secondary College senior campus to its new site in McKenzie Street Wonthaggi. The Education Department is currently undertaking a detailed feasibility study for the development of the new senior campus.” Question 2: “Has the State Government given the shire a definitive response on this issue?” Answer 2: “A final response from the Government is unlikely until a funding commitment for the school relocation is announced.” Question 3: “How does the shire plan to make progress on the education precinct, cultural centre issue?” Answer 3: “The Bass Coast Education and Learning Precinct Committee, which is made up of all partners in the precinct, continues to meet and develop the concept. It is currently in discussions with the consultants to finalise the feasibility study for the Education Department. The recent Report into Tertiary Education in Gippsland recommended the establishment of technology enabled learning centres in seven locations around the region, including Wonthaggi. This recommendation was consistent with the philosophy of the education precinct which had always proposed the use of video conferencing technology to provide greater access to a wider range of vocational and tertiary courses in the Shire. This would avoid the need for students to leave their communities for further education. The Committee is encouraged that many of the initiatives proposed in the original concept for the precinct are now being reflected in government policy. The Education and Learning Precinct was an initiative of Council’s 2008 Education Plan. Few Shires in the State have an Education Plan. The Bass Coast Plan is aimed at improving education outcomes for young people and providing access to a wide range of appropriate education and training opportunities in the area.” No doubt all this will take time. But surely the State Government should be pressed for an answer, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, about its intentions. The longer it goes on, the more tenuous the connection becomes between the loss of a rateable land, the ‘Capital Improvement’ of that land with the development of a privately owned $5.7 billion desalination plant and the requirement, like every other business, that it should pay rates. The consortium behind AquaSure, the firm which will own the plant for the next 26 and a half years, includes some extremely well-heeled firms including Thiess-Leighton, Degrémont Suez Environment, Macquarie Capital, UniSuper, which has a 26% equity interest in AquaSure, and others; all of them more than capable of paying rates. If a previous State Government made an agreement with AquaSure not to pay rates, then a payment in lieu by the government is appropriate.