At last week’s Clarence Valley Council (CVC) meeting, comments made by several councillors alluded to behind the scenes adjustments to management practices since the departure of the former general manager, Scott Greensill; adjustments that have resulted in several councillors, who were opposed to applying for a special rate variation (SRV), changing their minds.
Significantly, councillors also invited representatives of the Office of Local Government (OLG) to provide advice at a workshop held on April 4 – the OLG invited independent expert Greg Wright, who is currently the administrator of two councils, to provide advice, too.
Councillors voted 7-2 in favour of making an application for an eight per cent SRV for each of three years (including an estimated two per cent rate peg) and implementing identified “improvement opportunities”.
The proposed SRV – commencing in 2018/19 and resulting in a 25.9 per cent permanent increase in rates by year three (2020/21) – will generate $7.08 million in revenue.
The identified “improvement opportunities”, when combined with the SRV, result in a total of $15.566 million in additional revenue by 2020/21.
These initiatives will be included in the draft budget and operational plans, to be tabled at the May council meeting, which will subsequently be exhibited and the subject of community consultation.
In a CVC media release, acting general manager Ashley Lindsay said “none of this will be easy”.
“No-one wants to pay more rates and we don’t want to charge them, but the harsh reality is [that] the only alternative to a special rates variation is deep cuts to, or the elimination of, many of the services council provides and the community expects,” he said.
“We have been told by the Office of Local Government we need to have a balanced operating result by 2021 [to be Fit for the Future].
“The cost-cutting measures we will introduce [will] result in the loss of the equivalent of 24.5 full time staff positions, cuts to a range of services and better cost recovery on others.
“We have done everything possible to keep rate rises to a minimum.”
Meanwhile, at the meeting, Cr Peter Ellem, who opposed a SRV during last year’s election, offered insight into the ‘behind the scenes adjustments’ when he said he was “wiser because we have demanded and recently received more detailed information on the operational side of things, and greater clarity from the OLG.
“This level of detail has been off-limits to councillors in the past,” he said.
“I commend our acting general manager Ashley Lindsay and his team for lifting the veils on our 40-plus business units, what roles are core and non-core to meeting statutory obligations, staffing levels and costs.”
Councillor Toms, who had also opposed an SRV, commended councillors Baker, Williamson, Ellem and the council’s staff “for their professionalism in the journey we have to go through”.
Becoming slightly emotional, Cr Toms said she had changed her mind as a result of receiving “more information” from Greg Wright, “who advised us that having someone like him come in [as an administrator] would hurt the community even more than the decisions we have to make now”.
“…Mr Wright convinced me we can’t just do it [be Fit for the Future] with spending cuts,” she said.
Councillor Toms, who spoke after Cr Greg Clancy had indicated he would oppose the motion, said “I believe we should all be supporting the motion”.
“I know it’s a democracy and some will choose not to, but that is disappointing.”
She said the workshop had “proved” that it was time “to stop dancing around and make decisions that should have been made years ago when we amalgamated”.
The motivation for these changes of mind were best illustrated by the words of Cr Andrew Baker, who moved the motion and read from a 12-point manifesto of sorts, which addressed historical issues through to the reasoning behind his support of a SRV.
He reminded councillors that in October 2012 the NSW Government Treasury Corporation (T-Corp) had advised that CVC “could face sustainability issues in the future unless a SRV is granted, additional revenue sources found, services are cut, or expenses are able to be reduced”.
Since the new council’s election, he said, “councillors, individually and collectively, have examined, debated, challenged and examined again, every suggestion and every possible way to deliver on those aspirations of no rate increases, no service cuts, no employment reductions, no reduced facilities and amenities and no more debt”.
He said he had to “admit” that he could “see no way to balance the operating budget” without an SRV, however, he added, “I can say we’ve made a very big attempt to do just that”.
Councillor Debrah Novak voted against the motion.
The mayor, Jim Simmons, who has consistently opposed an SRV in the past, changed his mind, too.
However, he did not outline his reasoning; instead, he spoke about the impacts of staff reductions, rate pegging and “further reductions in discretionary services, [which] will be an important part of the community consultation”.