By Michael Giles

THE BASS Coast Shire Council recently guaranteed that it would publish the meeting agenda and attachments for its main monthly council meeting, at least 12 days before the meeting date.
That usually means the meeting papers must be up on the shire website two Fridays before the Wednesday council meeting, in this case by Friday, April 8, ahead of the meeting on Wednesday, April 20.
This didn’t happen, possibly understandable in this case because the April agenda has no fewer than 10 attachments, including the Draft Budget for 2016-17.
It may only be a small point, but it took a phone call from the Sentinel-Times at 9.05 on Monday morning this week to get the proposed budget and agenda papers released.
In the absence of any details on the shire’s website, the only indication we had about what was contained in the budget was released on local community radio station, 3MFM, during the weekly presentation of Council News, just after the ‘Off The Bench’ footy show last Saturday.
Apparently the radio station ran the recorded segment ahead of time which is evident from the conversation between the two shire staff members:
“We’ve got a jam-packed show this week. We’ll be talking about everything from the end of the Fire Danger Period to election enrolments. First up though, the agenda for the April Council meeting has just been posted.”
It hadn’t been.
“Yes, now available from our website is the agenda for the council meeting on the 20th of April. Some of the main decisions going to council include adopting the Natural Environment Strategy 2016–26, the Economic Development Strategy 2015-2020, and the Sports and Active Recreation Needs Assessment. There’s also the Services Fees and Charges for the next financial year, which ties in to the release of the draft 2016/17 Budget.”
“The draft Budget is also available for download and we encourage community members to have a look at this as we’re going to be holding some feedback and Q&A sessions in the coming weeks, both in-person and online.”
The two officers went on to present a glowing tribute to the budget, about how it will deliver $76 million in “services and support for assets” despite the rate cap of 2.5 per cent.
“Operating costs,” they said, “have been maintained at last year’s level, which equates to a real reduction of $1.9 million, so that’s a zero increase in employee operating costs, materials and services. There are loans of just over $2.9 million for projects like the Priority Bike Network, Cowes Revitalisation Projects, Bass Valley Children’s Centre and the Pioneer Bay Drainage Strategy.”
It all sounds great.
It got me thinking that this is what life will be like if local newspapers can’t attract sufficient advertising revenue to keep doing the job they do.
The authorities won’t bother publishing the information when they said they would and when they do make an announcement, it will be all sweetness and light.
The budget does contain commendable restraint (e.g. employee costs steady at $28.6m) and some highlights, including further confirmation of $1m for the Bass Valley Children’s Centre, but questions would also need to be asked about the savage cuts to capital works, down from $24.7m this year to $15.8m next year, and what that figure might look like if the $1.64m for the Cowes Revitalisation Projects doesn’t get used. In two years’ time, capital expenditure drops off the radar altogether to $11.9m.
A statement about why we are expecting to get $5.6m less in government grants next year would be helpful.
Debt levels hitting $15 million in a tight income climate is also of concern.
We’re told that newspapers only focus on the negative and yet the Sentinel-Times celebrated on its front page recently the magnificent work of two Korumburra RSL members to honour the district’s casualties of war.
ANZAC Day will again get the promotion and coverage it deserves.
Last week we challenged the Andrews Government to follow through on its visit to the region with Budget funding on April 27 and we’ll hold them to account.
We did our bit to add value to the shire’s Herald-Sun Tour promotion with a “maillot jaune” front page.
And while we responded to public concern last year by highlighting the recruitment of key personnel from Latrobe City to Bass Coast, we’ve also opted not to focus attention on the latest recruit from Latrobe City, Chris Wightman, as the shire’s Co-ordinator Strategic Planning.
Although Mr Wightman spent four years at Latrobe, under Paul Buckley, he was in a sense “returning home” because he also spent the previous three years in a similar role at South Gippsland.
Which is why reports that the Bass Coast Shire Council has stopped placing public notices in our sister newspaper, the Phillip Island Advertiser, is of particular concern.
Of even more concern would be reports that a Bass councillor allegedly made the boast that it was a punitive measure against the Advertiser for negative publicity.
We don’t accept that’s true but the advertising placed by local shires in their local newspapers is vitally important for two reasons; it provides another opportunity for the community to be informed and become engaged, while also supporting the key community building role that the local newspapers play.
How much our shires spend these days on their own communications departments, websites, social media, printed publications and the like is anyone’s guess but we say local newspapers still offer great value-add for their communities and should continue to be used by their local shire councils.