By Michael Giles

IN ONE fell swoop last Wednesday, the Bass Coast Shire, its council and administration, killed off all of the goodwill it built up through its highly successful ‘Build a Better Bass Coast’ engagement program over the summer.
Of course the council should have committed to its share of the cost of developing a three-court, highball stadium on the site of the proposed, new Wonthaggi Secondary College.
In normal circumstances, it would have been an absolute no-brainer.
Clearly the State Government is strongly disposed towards building, at long last, a new senior secondary college on a new site in McKenzie Street. They’ve sent a steady stream of Ministers here to scope it out, including the Education Minister and Deputy Premier himself, James Merlino, while also allocating planning money in the last budget.
And agreeing to contribute “not greater than $2 million” to sports facilities on the college site would have been a strong vote of confidence in the whole project, while also being our best chance of getting a highball facility here in the relative short term.
It would have been used by students from the whole region by day, and by night, open to all comers.
It would have generated economic activity, and jobs, and kept our kids off the street.
Now, who knows what damage has been done to the secondary college aspirations overall, whilst also killing off a great chance to piggy-back in on the school’s funding, hopefully still to be included in the May Budget. And the outcry on social media in the past few days has been fully justified.
Local families are rightly upset and angry.
Unfortunately these are not ‘normal circumstances’.
And the comments by the Mayor, Cr Pam Rothfield, in her ‘Mayor’s Message’ this week points to a much, much deeper malaise within the Bass Coast Shire, of which the tragic loss of opportunity at the proposed secondary college, is just a symptom.
Chief among the problems afflicting Bass Coast at the moment are a toxic relationship between the shire’s senior executive and the new council, principally the CEO Paul Buckley, and a near-disastrous financial position, exacerbated by over-spending on salaries and consultants, the eleventh-hour commitment to a $66m/$75m waste contract, the 2% rate cap, the failure of the State Government to pay for visitor infrastructure and an inadequate rate base.
We’re as good as broke.
Well, not broke exactly, but our income is fully committed, as noted by the Mayor: “Last financial year, we experienced a deficit of some $1.2 million with an asset renewal of only 54 per cent of depreciation”, meaning we can’t afford to even maintain the assets we’ve got now.
Cr Rothfield goes on to say that the position is set to worsen this year because the shire’s costs are running well ahead of the 2% rate cap.
“In good conscience we could not agree to commit $2 million of ratepayers’ money to two additional highball facilities in the proposed new Wonthaggi Secondary College,” the mayor said.
Cr Rothfield also pointed to the dysfunctional relationship between the shire’s management and the new council as follows: “We as a Council learned of the $4.6 million proposed expenditure for these additional highball facilities on the afternoon of the Council meeting last Wednesday.”
Of course, this isn’t entirely true.
The councillors had received their agenda at least a week prior to last Wednesday’s meeting, with details including the deadline for “additional project information” was Friday, February 17.
But crucially, though, shire officers could not indicate to council, as late as a week out from the application deadline, the amount required, listing it as “not greater than Sxxxx” in the agenda; a ridiculously unprofessional inclusion, hastily altered before last week’s meeting.
Nor did the highly-paid shire administration provide sufficient time for council discussion on such an important opportunity.
The whole thing was a shemozzle.
They dropped the ball, and so too did the council, however while these modestly remunerated, part-time representatives of the people should share some of the blame for that, it’s ultimately the job of the CEO to ensure the council has sufficient time and information, to make its decisions.
That’s why he gets the big bucks.
Scheduling a vote on such a key issue, two days out from the government’s funding deadline, is simply not good enough.
Listing the likely contribution at $xxxx, in an official council document, is worse.
And, unfortunately, the shire administration under Mr Buckley has form when it comes to missing the deadline for grant applications.
Cr Rothfield explains the reason for the 5:4 vote not to commit up to $2m across the next two shire budgets as follows: “The Council is vested with the responsibility of good governance and equity across the Shire.”
This is code for saying they don’t want to spend all their money in Wonthaggi, nor do they want to make a decision without considering the financial implications.
So, despite offers by local MP Brian Paynter to ask the Minister for a late submission and loud calls from the community for the council to relent, a lot of ground would have to be covered in the next few days before the council could have a change of heart.
The problems in Bass Coast run deep and unless something changes, there’s more disappointment and upheaval ahead.