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Be Careful What You Wish For

Filed under Editorial

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.


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4 Responses to Be Careful What You Wish For

  1. Disgruntled

    Arrr Dafyd. Quite a simplistic explanation here mate!Really there are many ways to try to make the dollar do more, maybe not to the extent of the large dollar amount mentioned but a saving nevertheless. And remember the old quote, eh: “A penny saved is a penny earned”.

  2. Greg Pomfret

    Good read Dafyd. My main problem is everybody comes to council with great intentions to do the right thing by the ratepayers as they love their local communities but then the council bureaucrats get their over-educated impractical claws in and make governing done by their way with a gentle push in back.

    My way is first day on the job I’d get every head of department in and quiet bluntly tell them we were elected by the people and you are only an employee and hand them all their first warning. There are plenty of people who can do there overpaid job for less money. Then let’s see who now opens their mouth with stupid ideas.

    The councillors and mayor are there to make tough decisions, not to win popularity contests as they need to remember all any ratepayers want is value for money and transparency .

  3. Mark Luck

    There are many issues here and I agree we are all anxious about making our region progress.

    Firstly this article should be read in conjunction with Dafyd’s pre-Xmas article highlighting our poor performance compared with neighboring regions in regard to positive developments and projects.

    Secondly, Council is hamstrung by State Government legislation. I have been an advocate of getting rid of the middle tier of government because we have too much government chewing up taxpayers’ dollars. Get rid of that legislation and there would no need to have so many bureaucrats at Council level. Many years ago I spoke to Roger Nunn and Ron Turner about calling all department heads in and telling them their job is to serve the public. Apparently legislation stops them doing this.

    Thirdly, no matter what we say it is all about funding. The promises of set % of GST coming to councils has long gone. All governments prefer to hand out funds for pet projects so they can take the credit for cherrypicking projects that suit them. Our mayor was standing shoulder to shoulder with the Local Government Association in pressuring Liberal and Labour to change back to original method of distribution.

    Guess what, before the last election there was bipartisan support not to do so. Why? Because the Feds think they can get more votes their way.

    The recent sports rort affair would never have happened if a fair distribution was made to regional councils.

    So where to now? The recent council election will see definitely one new face, possibly three.

    From council, ratepayers want to see a new form of inclusiveness. We want to be taken along as part of the process. After all, it is the ratepayers who improved council’s financial position. We put he money into the coffers with our rates. We do not want council passing huge increases in rates at the budget meeting and then telling us about it later.

    Recent commentary about specific council borrowings have have pitted one town against another, just as the huge rural rate increases turned rural against townies.

    There are areas where a little effort can yield big improvements eg. parks and gardens.

    I am encouraged by statements from various election candidates and from the CEO that a partnership can be formed and lead to improved productivity with what little $ we have.

    It is up to each of us to keep pushing State and Federal governments for a better deal.

  4. Disgruntled

    Hi Greg, That is a very good and to the point comment. And I do hope it is taken heed of.

    I’m now nearly 80 years old, I have two still working eyes and ears, and a lot of what I see and hear re what Council is and does utterly astounds me (bloody big time)

    There isn’t enough space here to keep going, as I suspect if I were to try to cover all my concerns that Newsdesk would get up me for the article length, and I’m OK with that, too!

    I will finish by saying that a worker (a guy that if I was employing I would give number one place to because of his exemplary work ethic) once said to me that the CEO needs parrots ie. undercover workers at ALL levels of Council, top to bottom.

    And from what I observe I would have to say that he hit the nail squarely and properly!

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