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Mayor rebukes councillor’s budget claims

Mayor Richie Williamson didn’t hold back on his description of Cr Andrew Baker’s claim that Clarence Valley Council’s draft 2016/17 budget and related operational plans “fail to address our unsustainable debt”. “To say the council has done nothing is the greatest untruth I’ve heard since being [a councillor],” the mayor said at the end of debate at an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday May 10. Each of the documents tabled were supported by a majority of councillors, as recommended by staff. Councillors Williamson, Kingsley, Howe, Hughes and Lysaught voted in the affirmative; councillors McKenna, Baker and Simmons were opposed; Cr Toms lodged an apology for an “unavoidable absence”. Councillors Simmons and Baker put their views forward, reading from prepared statements. Cr Jim Simmons lamented that the 2004 amalgamation had not achieved the promised cost savings. “What did CVC do over the 12-year period to achieve those supposed cost savings?” he said. “Probably nothing until recently; [councils have] probably worsened the long-term sustainability position by continuing with general fund borrowings for most of that time and not addressing costs and non essential services, [and] not looking at council’s core activities.” He said the council’s $133m debt was over the upper $110m limit that CVC is aiming to achieve to meet Fit for the Future benchmarks. Councillor Simmons did, however, say that CVC “will achieve a position of long term sustainability because of the changes put in place and actions being taken, plus the special rate variation [SRV]”. IPART was due to announce, yesterday, the result of CVC’s application for a special rates variation of 6.5 per cent for each of the next five years. “The majority of ratepayers are opposed to the increase; if there is any doubt about that, then go back out to the community,” Cr Simmons said. Cr Andrew Baker was far more strident in his analysis. “We’ve done nothing except ‘talk the talk’ about reducing our excessive debt to sustainable levels,” he said. “It’s a matter of $20 million for now: $20 million at least is the amount we need … to get us out of the high-risk debt range; $20 million is the amount ratepayers have to pay by the additional 37 per cent rates increase to fix the roads and $20 million of our of cash reserves is proposed in this budget for cash up front on discretionary spending for cars, machinery and a great big new depot.” Cr Baker argued that “these items should only be paid for as they are used over their useful life … other levels of government, and businesses, they don’t pay cash up front for cars and machinery and new buildings”. “We have in the budget $12.7 million on the big new depot – [which] might leave everyone believing that is the full cost of the depot,” he said. “We have a [confidential] report already with a long list of exclusions – there’re no dollar figures beside them, just items.” Cr Baker said the excluded “‘extras’ “will add a likely $5.3m to $8.3m to this depot project”. “While ever we fail to demand a full and complete costing and a full disclosure business case, we simply push a huge risk onto future ratepayers and, of course, onto the next term council,” he said. Cr Margaret McKenna thanked Cr Baker “for bringing something to the table” and said she was not happy with “the way our budget has progressed”. “There has been a lot of emphasis on the SRV and other expenditure items have not received the attention they should have,” she said. Councillor Craig Howe said it was “not true to say previous councils did nothing” to reduce debt. “The [new] depot is going to reap long-term savings for the future,” he said. “I believe this council is setting up for future councils to be sustainable. “Let’s have a look in six years time and see what the present decisions are doing.” Mayor Richie Williamson told his fellow councillors that the “vast majority” of the council’s $133m debt is for water and sewerage, “the council’s biggest investment in future development and growth”. “And, of course, it should be paid for over the life of the asset,” he said. “We have a very clear way to pay down debt over 10 years; to say there is no plan and no achievement; I reiterate, this is the greatest untruth I’ve heard.” He said he “wished he was sitting on the populist side of the debate … but we must act in the best interests of ratepayers; we must ensure our roads are safe, that the people who put us in this place [do] have safe roads to travel on and industries to develop on”. The draft documents are on exhibition until June 10; public meetings to discuss them will be held on May 24 and 26 at Maclean and Grafton respectively. The Independent discusses issues surrounding the council’s budget with corporate director Ashley Lindsay in next week’s paper.