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Massaging the SRV: what the councillors said

At last week’s extraordinary council meeting, Clarence Valley Council finalised revisions of its operational documents to concur with its application for a special 6.5 per cent rate variation (SRV), increase over each of the next five years. Mayor Richie Williamson, seconded by deputy mayor Craig Howe, moved the council officer’s recommendation. No questions were asked by councillors prior to debate. The mayor reserved his right of reply until councillors had their say. No other councillors spoke in favour of the recommendation. Councillors Jim Simmons and Andrew Baker spoke against the recommendation. Cr Simmons acknowledged the “very professionally prepared” documents; however, he said he couldn’t vote for a “cumulative 37 per cent increase in rates”. He said he was not “in favour of utilising borrowing totalling $15m from 2019/20 to24/25 to reduce the backlog infrastructure renewal”. “I do not agree with the quantum of the SRV, noting that there [have] been substantial increases in water and sewerage charges over recent years,” Cr Simmons said. “And I guess those increases have built a higher rate base.” He said he had “concerns about where the $7.465m in efficiency savings will come from and what that will involve”. “In my view … councils have not allocated enough funds for core responsibilities; instead putting more funds into discretionary services. “Consequently, council has in the past gone down the path of raising loans, which is just not sustainable to continue with the general fund.” He said “most residents cannot afford increases in rates”, while acknowledging that the future water and sewerage charge increases would be far less than those of recent years. Councillor Baker said some parts of the multi point recommendation “may be worth adopting … but the overall position … to adopt … any SRV, to me, is wrong”. He spoke of being advised at a workshop on February 2 that “all we have to do is build a new depot [at South Grafton] … and we get these financial benefits coming to us straight away. “Those financial benefits would almost be the amount we intend to raise with the SRV. Cr Baker told the Independent that he was referring to funds that have been “diverted from reserves for the likes of heavy plant replacement, water and sewerage and previous land sales, to the Strategic Building Reserve”, which funds the new depot. “We’ve been told any number of times that we can find efficiency savings in the future, but we haven’t found them in the past,” he said at the meeting. “…We should be doing all things necessary to find those savings before we apply for a SRV.” “…We certainly haven’t, in all the time I’ve been here, given any consideration whatsoever to the business of not spending our savings. “I cannot vote for anything that simply leaves all of these things unexplored or maybe promised or possibly happening in the future after the lifetime of this council.” Mayor Williamson said some of the points Cr Baker made “completely lost me”. He said the documents tabled and the SRV were “our strategies moving forward”. “…I’m not fussed on the possibility of borrowing $15m by 24/25 and that’s why it’s incumbent not only on the policy makers of today … but the policy makers of the next council, to ensure that we continue to find savings.” He said he thought it was “highly possible” that the council would not have to borrow the $15m. “We are doing the hard work and there is more to be done,” he said. “The elected council will do everything in its power to lessen the exposure to increased rates to our ratepayers. “That is an undertaking that I have given.” Cr Williamson said the general manager will outline how savings might be made at the March council meeting. “That will include … reviews of the services that we provide and delivery models that are used … it includes a major review of our plant and fleet operation, with the view [of achieving] immediate and ongoing savings … [and] the rationalisation of assets. “…We will continue to work to lessen the footprint of the council … [and] ensure that the policies of today, until this year’s September election, will reflect the no borrowings in the general fund. “…Indeed I think it’s timely that we review our borrowings in all of our funds. “…We need to move forward in a way that makes this council sustainable … and fit for the future.”