Any promises made by the Clarence Valley’s councillors during last year’s election – to oppose a special rate variation (SRV) – are officially dead and buried following last week’s council meeting on Tuesday May 16.
Councillors unanimously endorsed applying for an eight per cent increase in the general rate each year for three years (including an estimated rate pegged limit of two per cent), with a cumulative impact of 25.9 per cent – to be retained permanently in council’s rate base.
However, it’s not a done deal; the council’s budget and operational plan will be discussed with the community before final endorsement on June 27.
The council will change its method of consultation, too, with each public meeting to be conducted more like a workshop than the previous PowerPoint presentation and Q & A format. However the council had not confirmed times, dates and places for the additional after hours meetings, which will focus on the SRV and service cuts. And, for the first time in Clarence Valley Council’s (CVC) history, the public and councillors will have access to a document, the draft Clarence Valley Council Service (Business) Plans 2017/18 (councillors used this document during their workshops, preparing this year’s budget and operational plan).
An overview of each of CVC’s sections and the delivery of their assigned services are summarised in the document, which lists the number of full time equivalent (FTE) staff employed in each section and associated costs, among other details.
In a CVC media release, the mayor, Jims Simmons (one of the councillors elected on a no SRV platform), said: “We’ve been living beyond our means since the councils of the Clarence Valley were amalgamated in 2004.
“We need to have a balanced operating result by 2020/21 to meet the NSW Government’s Fit for the Future financial benchmarks and we believe the best way to get there is through a combination of efficiency savings and a rate increase.
“We believe we have struck the right balance. We have examined every conceivable cost reduction measure and have already started implementing them.
“But we don’t believe we can reduce costs further without making a significant impact on the facilities and services people expect council to provide.
“If we were to make further cuts we would need to look at ending our involvement with such things as the Grafton and Maclean sports centres, the aquatic facilities in Grafton, Maclean and Yamba, the South Grafton saleyards, regional art gallery, youth services, cemetery services and a host of other things we feel people want us to retain.
“But we will listen … if people don’t want to pay more in rates or they want to restrict the SRV increases, they will need to tell us which of the services we provide that they feel should go.
“We can’t have it both ways. We cannot continue to provide these services without additional revenue.”
At last week’s council meeting, Cr Richie Williamson led the debate, during which he welcomed a ‘Plan B’ or ‘magic plan’ “that keeps services and doesn’t put up costs” to be put forward by the community, as did councillors Baker, Toms and Novak.
“We should welcome genuine public comment, genuine Plan Bs”, which he said councillors would be willing to “flesh out”.
“We want to see it quickly; but I’m not sure there is a magic bullet out there.”
During his right of reply, Cr Williamson said “we [councillors] have shown we have worked together to overcome” the CVC’s longstanding fiscal problems.
Councillor Karen Toms (elected on a no SRV platform) said “this plan we’ve come up with has taken many hours” and that councillors “are truly consulting this time”.
She alluded to online forums and discussion groups, urging people to “please stop criticising and come along and … consult with us”.
“I would love nothing more than you coming up with a better plan … so we don’t have to apply for a SRV,” she said.
Councillor Baker (elected on a no SRV platform) said he “hoped” he held the “record” among councillors for “consistently” opposing a SRV – since the first proposal put up by CVC’s first general manager, Stuart McPherson – on the basis that each proposal was “always for more money to spend”.
“Since November 30, 2016, [however] … councillors have been forced to get stuck into it and work out what they will do to reduce council’s spending and … [to] go out to the community and have the community endorse a special rate variation,” he said.
He said it was time for people to pay for the services they have been enjoying during the past 10 years of over spending by CVC.
“I commend this plan to the community,” he said.
Councillor Arthur Lysaught alluded to what would happen if an administrator was appointed, saying “cuts to discretionary services will be far greater” than what the councillors have proposed.
Councillor Jason Kingsley said that no SRV and more cuts to discretionary services than those proposed would result in “pain [being] felt by all sections of the community … probably for far longer”.
During the election campaign, Cr Greg Clancy said he “would not support an SRV in [the] first six months”; however, he referred to acting general manager Ashley Lindsay’s provision of “good” information and welcomed “members of the public [to] put forward ideas”.
Councillor Debrah Novak said she supported the operational plan, but would “not necessarily support a SRV”.
“Anyone out there who thinks we can come together and form a brains trust, I’m happy to hear from them,” she said.
Councillor Peter Ellem (elected on a no SRV platform) did not speak on the matter.
Times and dates for community meetings to discuss the council’s Draft Integrated Planning and Reporting Documents for 2017/18 can be found on their website: www.clarence.nsw.gov.au/cp_themes/metro/page.asp?p=DOC-RHP-65-27-00