By Michael Giles
THE Bass Coast Shire Council is living well beyond its means.
We have been told that often enough during the recent campaign to get community support for a rate rise above the CPI.
There are three main reasons for it;
(1.) Successive councils and CEOs have allowed the development of an unsustainably large and expensive shire administration, featuring unrealistically high executive salaries and exorbitant EBA increases and conditions.
(2.) Cost-shifting by the Federal and State governments has continued to lump responsibility for services on to local ratepayers, and
(3.) The decision by the State Government to limit rate rises to 2.5% this year has severely impacted the ability of councils to raise the funds necessary to provide for this largess.
With the community showing no interest in a big rate increase, something had to give and last Thursday, it was Wonthaggi’s ‘Centennial’ Visitor Information Centre (VIC), opened in December 2011 at a cost of $1.5 million (Federal grant $1.1m, State $300,000) as a gift to the people of Wonthaggi following the town’s 100th birthday in 2010.
Council contributed just $185,000 to the capital cost.
Described in council’s annual report of 2011-12 as a “key achievement” which resulted in a “dramatic” 80 per cent increase in visitation to the Wonthaggi VIC, it is suddenly being characterised as a financial disaster requiring drastic action.
As disappointing as this announcement was last Thursday, it is the way the decision was taken that should alarm the community even more.
It came without any warning or community consultation whatsoever.
What about the impact on business in Wonthaggi, accommodation bookings and visitors to the State Coal Mine?
In fact, despite staging its monthly council meeting last Wednesday, February 17, the matter wasn’t mentioned by any officer or councillor during the evening’s open session.
We have since been told that in the 15 minutes between closing the meeting to the public and closing the secret session; the matter was discussed and the closure of the centre announced.
Three other matters were allegedly discussed in that time as well, but no votes or decisions by council have been recorded.
It beggars belief that such a momentous decision could be made in such a short amount of time.
Was the closure merely announced by the CEO?
What did the councillors have to say?
Were alternatives discussed?
How much is saved by closing Wonthaggi?
And in the absence of any tabled feasibility study or report, can we believe the claims made in the shire’s media release later that changes to the VIC network at Wonthaggi, Inverloch and Cowes will result in savings of “up to $330,000 per year” or more than $3 million over 10 years?
We have since been advised that the matter was dealt with behind closed doors because it potentially affected one shire employee – what hogwash!
The council couldn’t discuss anything in public if that was the case.
Surely the person involved was fully aware of the potential for such an outcome, and in any case, every discussion or decision by council has implications for staff – it’s the nature of public service.
The Bass Coast Shire Council has five, only five key principles to “guide all decisions and actions”. One of these overarching principles is that council follow a “transparent evidence-based and inclusive decision making” process.
Clearly this was not done here.
If the council had published a paper and consulted with the public prior to making a decision, everyone (including the councillors) would have gained a better understanding of the impact of such a decision and possibly even alternatives involving still greater volunteer effort to keep the centre open.
It may also be that in an intensely tourism-related area, the community would have been prepared to wear the cost.
The community has a right to be fearful of the approach taken here because clearly, there are more services on the shire’s secret hit list.