letter-councilThe response of South Gippsland Shire Council to the many submissions against the proposed 7.5 per cent rates increase for 2013/14 has been very disappointing. All councillors expressed agreement with the concerns raised about the need to control costs, consider rates affordability by the community etc. However the result – being a token reduction to 6.75 per cent in the proposed 2013/14 rate increase (rates and charges revenue is still projected to increase overall by 8.1 per cent in 2013/14), and more promises of serious reviews to “minimise rate increases in the future” – boils down to “all talk but no action”.

A classic example of this is the response to enormous ratepayer discontent with the idea of spending over $120,000 on developing a Vision 2050 Plan. These funds have now been reallocated to a new item to “develop new approaches to engage community participation in creating a continually evolving vision for the shire,…… with the intent of achieving end of year savings from this budget allocation”. It seems a mere change in the wording for this spending is deemed sufficient – we deserve better. Our council’s existing proportionate staffing levels and costs are well above the norm, so a stringent budget review should be achievable without the need for extra resources.

Many areas for cost reductions were raised in submissions including staffing levels and costs, excessive managerial staff (five directorates and 23 departments), excessive motor vehicle fleet, review to ensure full recovery of actual cost of private use of council vehicles (not merely based on arbitrary formulas), unjustified short term turnover of vehicles, reduction in use of consultants, Coal Creek, review of all existing and proposed programs etc. The councillors must reassert their control and take the difficult decisions (in the same way as businesses and individuals) to ensure spending is limited to what is affordable.

Though the 140 page budget document notes in many places that it is important to balance the perceived demand for services with the community’s capacity and preparedness to pay for these, it does not devote one word to any assessment of affordability. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a council paper seeking to argue the affordability of 6.75 per cent and then 5 per cent rate increases forever! Understandably the art of politics has dictated that this be painted over. The budget is very clear in stating that the reason for big rate increases is “to generate increasing revenue streams to fund increasing capital works and (perceived) increasing service level requirements”.

But is this really what the community wants, and in any case is it something the community can afford? We should only expect and budget for the services we can afford to pay for. Councillors Hill, McEwen and Newton did propose an amendment to reduce the rate increase to 5.75 per cent, but the other six councillors defeated the chance of this by approving the 6.75 per cent increase as put up. We have been promised a stringent review for next year, with a “zero based budgeting” approach. Sounds a nice choice of words doesn’t it, or is it just a catchy phrase designed to try to placate us for now, with more of the same next year when “other difficulties have cropped up”. The clock is ticking and serious action is overdue.

Lloyd McKenzie, Foster.