AT A time when the ratepayers of the South Gippsland Shire can least afford it, the Council and its administration have squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly more than $1 million, on an ill-fated decision to take back the management of its coastal caravan parks.
In this case, however, money isn’t everything.
The human cost of an associated campaign to eject hundreds of annual leaseholders from Yanakie Caravan Park and the Long Jetty Caravan Park at Port Welshpool, has been far more devastating for the people involved.
Tired, confused, broken and exhausted by a costly, two-year legal battle and angry at the shire’s failure to mediate the dispute, dozens of the site holders had to pull down verandas, decks and annexes at the weekend and leave under threat of eviction.
It was a terribly sad scene.
Trailers loaded high with aluminium siding bound for the tip, extended families with dogs and kids taking one last look at a community and a location that they’ve loved and lost.
It was a far cry from the idyllic backdrop of a bright blue Corner Inlet, brimming with fish, and the looming hills of the Prom.
“It’s heart-breaking,” said Jenny Gass, who with her husband Dieter will now have to hit the road as permanent grey nomads.
Others say they can’t afford to set up elsewhere.
But the annuals say the shire will be out-of-pocket by several hundred thousand dollars a year until they sort out the mess they’ve created, probably more, not to mention the legal expenses and additional management and improvement costs.
A Quarterly Performance Report, tabled at last week’s shire council meeting, provides some insight into the expenses and loss of income, but the shire’s acting CEO Brian Sword admitted the report was confusing.
“It includes capital and operating costs in the one table. We’ll look at separating that for clarity next time,” he said.
The report shows that to the end of March 2016, the Long Jetty Caravan Park booked $87,017 less income, while spending $351,020 on management and capital works, of an annual budget of $976,064. Already $111,081 behind, the park’s shortfall could have blown out by $675,000 if the shire hadn’t decided to defer the renewal of the toilet block to next financial year.
And the full impact of the departure by annuals is yet to be felt.
At the moment, Yanakie’s balance sheet looks better with the shire claiming it had good holiday bookings at the park, boosting income for the three quarters to the end of March 2016 by $84,268 to $569,148. Unfortunately expenditure is way up, by $101,276 for the year to date, with the shire forced to cart water to the caravan park daily over the summer months, and also to undertake a series of running repairs, while installing a flash new playground which caravaners said wasn’t necessary.
Expenses are already up to $553,771 to the end of March of a budgeted figure of $624,864.
Next year the South Gippsland Shire Council is expecting income from its caravan parks to be down by $226,000, in its draft 2016-17 budget, but this already looks a forlorn hope.
Leaseholder at Yanakie, Rod Francis, puts the reduction in income to the shire a lot higher, up around the $1 million mark annually, especially if it goes ahead and does the same thing at Waratah Bay.
It’s simple maths he says; 200 annuals gone at $2900 (old annual fee) or $3900 (new fee) equals $580,000 or $780,000 in lost income.
“From what we know, they’ve only got one or two people to sign up for the new amount,” Mr Francis said.
“The real clincher if they sign the contract is that ‘no unregistered dwellings’ will be allowed on the sites. The lease says ‘the grantee must not bring on to the site or allow to remain on the site any dwelling which is not registered under the Road Safety Act.
“Most of the vans couldn’t be registered and even if they could pay the additional $1000 a year, and some would be prepared to pay that, it’s the compliance issues that are the problem.”
Walking around the park, Mr Francis points out how the rules introduced by the shire go against most of the annexes, verandas and ancillary works, not to mention the vans themselves.
He said the shire turned the government’s guidelines into harsh laws where other coastal shires have worked with lessees to make improvements.
“They’ve got no alternative but to pull them down.”
He said it was heartbreaking for many.
“We’ve taken over this van from a friend with moto neurone disease. He only has a few months to live and couldn’t deal with it.
“The elderly couple that own this one can’t even afford to pull it down. And no one would buy it now. There are dozens listed on e-bay at a fraction of their cost.
“They sent us eviction notices last month that say we’ve got to be out by this weekend,” he said last Saturday.
“If we don’t go, they’ll take Supreme Court action to take our vans and annexes off us and charge us for the cost of their removal.
“We wanted to continue to fight this in court but we had a meeting recently and 25 people said they didn’t want to go on with it. They’re worried about the cost and what happens if they lose. They’d have to pay the shire’s costs as well.
“So we’ve basically given up and we’re prepared to leave but we’d like them to come and talk to us about an orderly departure. Maybe give us another few months more to get out
“We needed another $20,000 to continue to fight it but out of the 75 in the class action, 25 decided to leave. Fifty still want to go on but were worried about the consequences.
“For 12 months the council has refused to negotiate with us. We’re not getting any response from them at all. They’re not even sending out their own bills,” he said.
He said there could be as many as 40 annuals stay on at Yanakie out of the original 123, and 15 to 20 at Long Jetty. But very few have signed a new lease, so the annual loss in income for the shire could be $300,000 to $400,000 at both parks and a similar amount if they move on the Waratah Bay leaseholders when the present manager’s contact falls due in December 2017.
“Council said they would be queueing down the road to get into Yanakie, but that hasn’t happened. They said it would take five years to settle down, then 10 years. I’d say 20 years before they get back to having a profitable park here.
“In the meantime they’ll be building up huge losses,” he claimed.
The Mayor, Cr Bob Newton, has attempted to wipe his hands of the whole affair.
“If you look back, I’ve never been in favour of it. We had the saleyards (at Korumburra) and couldn’t run it. We couldn’t run the rec centre (at Korumburra) either and now this.
“But I’m only one of nine councillors.”
In its most recent Quarterly Performance Report, the shire notes that “work continued on the development of the Master Plans for the Yanakie and Long Jetty Foreshore caravan parks”.
The shire is also believed to be developing a business case for changes at Waratah Bay.
Shire faces massive losses after caravan park evictions