By Gav Ross
“SHAME on you, councillor!”
This response, bellowed at Bass Coast Mayor Neil Rankine just moments after he used his casting vote to push forward with a planned $7.1 million roads and drainage scheme in Cape Paterson.
It was likely not what the councillor wanted shouted across the room by several people in unison when the shire’s new CEO, Paul Buckley, was seated nearby, experiencing his first public Bass Coast council meeting.
Even though the decision last Wednesday was simply the council announcing its intent to declare the scheme at a later date – still a step away from deciding whether the project is actually going ahead – tempers flared when councillors voted four to three in favour of moving forward with the process.
Furious ratepayers in the gallery, fearing bills of more than $10,000 for their part of the project, waved signs, some of which read ‘Shame, Rankine, Shame’ and ‘Abandon the scheme now’.
They had hoped the saga would come to a close after more than 10 months of angst.
Property owners affected by the scheme now have one month from today, February 25, to get their objections in.
If objections flow in from more than 50 per cent of the properties affected within that time period, the project will be abandoned.
As revealed in last week’s agenda papers, the council has already spent $266,000 developing the scheme – money the organisation won’t get back if the project is quashed.
Ratepayers first became aware of the Cape Paterson Special Charge Scheme when an information pack arrived in letterboxes last April, sparking immediate outrage.
Last July, in the face of strong community opposition, councillors voted in favour of deferring any decision on the scheme until the project had been revised.
The modified scheme completed by the shire’s infrastructure department saw the majority of footpaths that were in the original scheme culled from the project, along with the introduction of water sensitive urban design elements.
While council’s contribution to the revised scheme had been upped to $1.5 million, 469 landowners are still faced with paying $5.6 million of the total bill, averaging out to around $12,000 per property.
Some residents are facing a bill in excess of $40,000 if the scheme is green-lit when it comes back to council in July.
A council divided
Debating the matter at last week’s meeting, Cr Bradley Drew acknowledged the financial impact of the scheme has been “weighing heavily” on people, but the council had to consider how the scheme will benefit the community in the long-term.
“There is always a cost to everything council does,” he said.
“And ultimately people do have to pay.”
Cr Le Serve said she was supporting the motion simply because it gave property owners the option to formally have their say.
“Tonight is about the democratic process; whether individual households say they want it or they don’t,” she said.
“To be fair to the people who aren’t here tonight, they will have the option of receiving a letter, looking at their block and deciding for themselves whether they are for or against it.”
Cr Andrew Phillips said he had been “50-50” on the issue, admitting he personally likes gravel roads and some estates should retain unsealed roads.
Despite this comment, which drew praise from protestors in the gallery, Cr Phillips sided with Crs Rankine, Le Serve and Drew and voted in favour of the motion anyway.
Since he never votes in favour of any special charge scheme, regardless of whether it’s in his ward or not, Cr Phil Wright said he wouldn’t raise his hand in favour of the motion.
“(This is) not in the context of Cape Paterson, but because of the absurdity of special charge schemes,” he said.
Cr Wright said no council had yet had the courage to try and solve the difficult situation council is faced with when such projects are formulated.
“Even if we went ahead with this scheme and the next ones at Sunset Strip and Pioneer Bay, we still have 80 years of work ahead of us,” he said.
“Does this mean Mrs Murphy who has inadequate drainage has to wait 80 years; I find that concept absurd and I will not accept we are doing our job as responsible councillors.”
Cr Jordan Crugnale, who fought to see a similar scheme on a much smaller scale abandoned in 2011, before she became a councillor, unsurprisingly also voted against the motion.
The last to speak before Cr Drew, the mover of the motion, wrapped up, Cr Rankine said he was “very much against the original proposal”.
Before anyone in the gallery got their hopes up, he added that he was “very encouraged” by the revised scheme put forward by the council’s infrastructure department.
Once again, before asking for a show of hands among councillors, Cr Rankine reiterated to the gallery: “This is not a final decision”.
“We will sit down, listen to submissions and decide how to move forward.”
The meeting was suspended for up to 10 minutes after ratepayers started shouting ‘Shame!’ at Cr Rankine.
Afterwards, councillors waited for the throng to shuffle out of the chamber.
Calls for policy review
Whilst debating, several councillors agreed that the shire’s approach to special charge schemes in general needs an overhaul.
Cr Kimberley Brown said that one thing she’d picked up from councillors’ comments was that the “whole system needs a review”.
“It baffles me that (this) special charge scheme got to the top of the list when I’m receiving hundreds of emails against it,” she said.
Cr Crugnale said: “We all need to sit down and have a long, hard look out our special charge schemes in general and our policies before it gets to this intention to declare stage.”
Even Cr Rankine acknowledged there was “a real sentiment that we really need to look at these schemes.”