By Danika Dent
MORE than half of annual site holders at Yanakie and Long Jetty (Port Welshpool) caravan parks have not paid their fees.
Annual site holders (not long-term residents) at the South Gippsland Shire Council-managed parks say they are refusing to pay their 2015/16 fees or return signed permit forms in protest over the recent hike in fees, poorly maintained amenities, council’s bullying, and while a legal case is pending in the Supreme Court.
A number of site holders have also not paid their previous dues (2014/15).
A number of the 68 annuals at Yanakie and 66 annuals at Long Jetty have formed a committee to launch legal action.
They say council’s 12 month permits at $3977 (Yanakie), and $3297 (Long Jetty) are well in excess of other similar caravan parks.
They say there is significant additional costs imposed by the council to meet the Victorian Government’s Improving Equity of Access to Crown Land Caravan and Camping Park Policy guidelines, which they say, council is implementing as law.
Annual site holders have instead paid $2956 (Yanakie) – the prices from 2013/14.
“The advice to annuals from our solicitors has been to pay the $3000, and relay to council that the other $1000 is in dispute until after the matter has been resolved in either mediation, or by the Supreme Court,” Damien Lindau, chairperson for the committee representing Yanakie and Long Jetty Caravan Park Annual Site Holders, said.
“It is effectively a 30 per cent increase in fees overnight.”
If the fees are not paid within 21 days, or a payment plan has been agreed to by council, it will be referred to council’s legal representatives to recover outstanding fees.
“We’re not disputing fees are due, we are disputing the increase in fees,” Mr Lindau said.
“We’ve done an extensive benchmarking exercise with like caravan parks and council is way, way out of line with other parks.
“Caravan parks that have these types of fees have running water – Yanakie doesn’t have running water; tennis courts, swimming pools, large camp kitchens.
“They also have quality amenities.
“The amenities that were here, that we were happy with before council took over, have gone downhill significantly.
“In one instance it took council seven months to get the men’s urinals to flush – it’s terrible the way it’s going.”
Other examples cited by visitors to the parks include overflowing bins, missing toilet paper, no shade, ineffective office hours and poor night time supervision – especially of speeding vehicles.
Parks bringing in people, revenue
South Gippsland Shire Council’s director Development Services Bryan Sword confirmed site holders were recently sent letters giving 21 days’ notice that fees and permits were due.
He said council will refer outstanding notices to its legal representatives “so wider ratepayers aren’t hit with costs”.
He said those people in financial hardship were able to set up payment plans, in line with council’s Rates/Fees Hardship Policy.
Non-payment of fees is just the latest issue to hit the much criticised council management model.
Councillors voted in 2014 to bring the Yanakie and Long Jetty caravan parks under council management as a way to bring in alternative revenue.
While council said there is a profit margin, it has been ‘invested back into’ the parks.
However, the full breakdown of the income and expenditure is to be discussed at the open council briefing session on February 17.
Mr Sword said it would be premature to release the information to the media, especially as the figures hadn’t yet been ‘checked over’ by senior staff.
He did say in 2015/16 income at Long Jetty was $429,776, expenditure $396,304; at Yanakie it was $527,643 and expenditure $494,146.
He said in addition, the parks provided “a quality tourism experience” that “generated greater economic outputs for South Gippsland” by opening the parks to more people.
Mr Sword said while income from annual site holders were down, income from overnight stays has significantly increased.
Council has increased its powered and unpowered casual sites to 39 at Yanakie and 35 at Long Jetty – both up from 20 at each park.
When council took in management, there were 123 annuals at Yanakie, and 86 at Long Jetty.
That has since dropped to 68 at Yanakie and 66 at Long Jetty – lost revenue opponents say is costing ratepayers.
Mr Sword said it was not a simple case of working out “lost revenue”; he said financial details will be in the February 17 briefing, but said:
“Do the math; if you have an annual site permit at $4000, and fees for overnight are $40, it will take 80 to 100 nights to recoup [lost revenue]”.
But, it was reported to the Sentinel-Times that while it was true the parks were busy over Christmas and New Year, one could “fire off a canon and not hit anybody” soon after.
“A few weeks at Christmas is not going to replace annuals, or the income local traders would get,” one annual site holder said.
“It’s an entrepreneurial fantasy that council thinks it can do better.”
Mr Lindau said this is where annual site holders could offer a buffer to council – providing year-round income.
“Over Christmas and New Year, it was busy – about what we’ve had in other years, but it was a way off full,” he said.
“On January 3, I went through the park [Yanakie] and there were only 23 sites being used.
“We also heard that over Christmas, people packed up and left they were so disgusted with the facilities – they left halfway through their stay.
“I’ve lost count of the people who got to the gate [boom gates] at 6pm, which is not late on a summer’s night, who can’t get in.
“They get to the boom gates and turn around, there’s nobody there to let them in.
“These parks now run on office time.
“Annuals provide a stable income, regardless of the situation.”
Mr Lindau said the committee is hopeful mediation will work, but said it was highly likely many of the annuals will receive eviction notices, despite the ongoing Supreme Court action.
Mr Sword said council will continue with its program and timeline.
“South Gippsland Shire Council is awaiting a list of claims and a full list of plaintiffs,” he said.
“We are willing to enter mediation, provided the necessary information is provided.
“We are yet to receive that information and so will continue to exercise our rights and obligations as a committee of management over Crown land.”
Revenue use is restricted
WHEN councillors considered taking over management of the Long Jetty and Yanakie caravan parks way back in August 2013, they lauded it as an opportunity for council to raise revenue outside of the restricted rates and charges model.
At the time, the deputy mayor, Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks, came out swinging.
“I totally and utterly reject that council shouldn’t be involved in anything entrepreneurial,” he said, insisting that if money could be saved by council doing something itself, then it should be done, and citing council’s successful takeover of landfill management.
It was confirmed at Friday’s media-only briefing with senior council staff, that revenue raised from the caravan parks can only be reinvested into the caravan parks, or on certain crown-owned land assets.
Director Development Services Bryan Sword said what assets council could work on would have to be approved by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).
He said council hadn’t yet “had that conversation with DELWP”.
“Profits derived from the caravan parks are required to be directed back into parks as part of Crown Land,” he said.
“[Reinvesting] benefits the community through providing a better tourism product which exposes South Gippsland to wider economic development in the community.”
He said agriculture and tourism remain the biggest industries in South Gippsland, so it had a wider benefit than just on a council business model.
“[Revenue] can fund improvements into parks and foreshore reserves [which abut the two caravan parks] that may not have been forthcoming under private operators.
“Priority is caravan parks, foreshores, but there is opportunity to expand to other reserves that are managed by the shire, but conversation with DEWLP is required.”