March 27, 2020
by Dafyd Martindale
Some things are less predictable than they used to be … the weather immediately springs to mind.
And life after COVID-19 …
But one thing that is predictable are Council elections. They happen every four years like clockwork.
And as usual, they attract candidates who display the same set of fundamental misconceptions about what being on a Council entails, some of which are shared by the voters who back them.
The most common misconception many candidates have is that they can change things singlehandedly.
Well, here’s a sobering fact:
In the South Burnett Regional Council, every councillor (including the Mayor) has just one vote each.
Which means that as much as you might want something – lower rates, for example – you’ll never get it unless you can persuade a majority of other Councillors to agree with your idea.
That’s the first stumbling block, and it’s a biggie.
But presuming you can get the numbers, you’ll then run into a second common misconception, and that is that you can do whatever you like (for example, lower the rates).
These days, Councils – and Councillors – are bound hand and foot with rules and regulations set by the State Government about how they must behave.
One of the biggest rules is that they must ensure their Council remains solvent.
So while you and the majority of your fellow Councillors may want lower rates, unless you can find a way to do this that leaves the books in balance, you are prohibited from pushing your Council into the red (unless it’s just temporary, and in that case you’ll need to be able to prove it really is going to be temporary before you do it).
This dilemma soon leads candidates to confront the third most common misconception many seem to have, and that is that Councils are awash with loose spending.
“Surely,” (some candidates think) “we can take an axe to all this waste to lower the rates” (or whatever it is they want to do).
Well, bad news here again: if a Council is well-run, there really isn’t that much fat to be trimmed.
Let’s take the South Burnett as an example.
Right now there are about 18,000 ratepayers in the South Burnett and the average rates bill is around $2700 a year (according to the Queensland Audit Office).
Let’s say you want to chop rates back to, say, $2000 a year.
That means you have to find $700 x 18,000 (ie $12.6 million) a year in permanent savings to do that.
Now, $12.6 million mightn’t sound like too much until you realise the Council’s entire income last year was $78.2 million and its expenses were $72.1 million, which only leaves you about $6 million to play with.
So where do you find the other $6.6 million?
The sobering answer is that you start closing swimming pools, libraries and other facilities. Or you cut back essential maintenance on things such as roads and water plants.
Or maybe you do a big bit of both.
Our neighbour Gympie appears to have taken that path over the past four years, pouring its money into big infrastructure projects such as the Mary Valley Rattler, the Gympie Aquatic Centre and several other million dollar developments.
The result? As residents in Goomeri have found, council neglected to maintain the town’s water treatment plant.
They also haven’t had a swimming pool for most of this summer because council let it degrade.
Some rural ratepayers in the Gympie region – many of whom now struggle with roads that are barely drivable – have been hit with rate rises of 40 to 100 per.
And GRC ratepayers can expect to see their Council hand down deficit budgets for the next few years (for which read: expect more rates hikes in future).
So South Burnett voters should think very, very carefully about who they vote for this year.
The simple fact is that candidates who rail against this Council’s supposed poor finances and their ability to discover hidden gold in the Budget papers are talking through their hats.
So are any candidates who imagine they can simply hit up the State and Federal Governments for more money and get it, given that all Councils in Australia have been agitating for precisely the same thing over the past decade without much success.
The Queensland Audit Office gave the South Burnett Regional Council a big tick for good financial management at the same time it gave Gympie a thumbs down.
I think that says a lot about who really deserves our vote.