THEY might have been working on it for the best part of six months but it only took 16 minutes last Wednesday for the Bass Coast Shire Council to commend its annual budget, and council plan 2017-21, to the community for comment and submission.
And at least some of that time was taken up with despatching to the waste paper basket, further attempts by Cr Les Larke to have more money released for infrastructure development and asset renewal by slashing the bureaucracy.
He claims past councils were allowed to neglect their responsibilities in this area for too long and that the present council is missing an opportunity for transformational change.
In fact, the Mayor Cr Pam Rothfield didn’t even allow Cr Larke to move an amendment, ruling it out of order as being virtually diametrically opposed to the original motion, that the budget be allowed to go out for public comment.
It will go out for comment now, on a vote of 8:1.
“I don’t want to spend too much time looking back, there’s little value in that but yes, they didn’t perform well in those years, especially with asset renewal and infrastructure development,” Cr Rothfield said.
“That’s why I stood for council.
“But it’s not as hideous as he’s talking about. The $31 million operating deficient he is talking about isn’t a real figure. It includes depreciation of $63 million which isn’t really money spent.
“But to try and describe it in everyday language is almost impossible.
“I’m not in any way pretending the last five years were good, I’m not wanting to white-wash the last five years but the $31 million figure depends on how you look at it.”
Cr Rothfield admitted council still had its challenges but was now in “OK financial shape, and getting better” after work done in the past three years and in recent times by the shire administration to cut costs and redirect funds into improvements people wanted to see.
It still hasn’t cut the workforce, however, set to remain at 314.6 for the foreseeable future.
We have improved, CEO
Although he didn’t make a statement of explanation about the budget on the day, shire CEO Paul Buckley was happy to talk about it afterwards.
He dismissed any suggestion of an operating deficit over the past five years, saying council was on course for an operating surplus for the five years to June 30, 2017 of almost $16 million.
“In the last three budgets, there has been an effort to reduce our operating costs and increase the amount going to capital renewal or improvement from our own funds and we’ve been able to do that,” Mr Buckley said.
“We’ve now got 13.14% of rate revenue, our own money, going into capital improvement where it was only 7.5%.
“In 2017-18, that figure will grow to 18%.
“It represents a major shift, with more to do,” Mr Buckley said.
He claimed savings of $6 million had been achieved in the past three years and predicted that a further $4 million would be brought in over the next four years.
A case in point, he said, was the reduction of 6.5 positions in management, saving the shire $900,000.
“Our service reviews have delivered most of those savings and are on-going. We do about six of those-a-year.
“The challenge for Local Government is to get ratepayers to understand the concept of total cost of operations, outside staff costs alone.”
He said Bass had done the comparisons with its neighbours and had come out significantly cheaper per assessment.
So, considerably more funds have been released by the shire this year for capital works, including via borrowings of more than $4.32 million next year, expanding the loan debt to $16.755 million. The shire has also released funds in order to go after grant funding for such projects as the sports stadium at the proposed Wonthaggi SC senior campus.
However as pleasing as the turnaround has been, it’s against the backdrop of tight finances.
“We effectively get $12 million less in rates than our neighbours, number one because our rates are lower by $300 per assessment on average, and because our non-resident population isn’t counted, we get $3 million less in Grants Commission allocation then they do.
“We’ve had a significant turnaround in the past three years to get to this point and we’ve got the cost of doing business tied down as well.”
He may be right.
While staff wages are expected to go up by around $1 million-a-year for the foreseeable future, the shire expects to grow the gap between income and expenditure by $2 million over the next few years.
The proof will be in the amount of promised infrastructure and capital improvement the shire delivers over the next 12 months and beyond, not in a talkfest of self-congratulation.
But, it’s certainly more encouraging to have a good story to tell, and for a change, that’s what the Bass Coast Council appears to have with its latest budget… notwithstanding Cr Larke’s claims about a $31 million deficit on operations.