September 16, 2020
South Burnett Regional Council will reduce its standpipe water prices from $10 to $6 per kilolitre for potable water – and $5 per kilolitre for non-potable water – until December 31.
The concession was made after an epic multi-hour debate at Wednesday’s Council meeting, sparked by a proposal from Cr Kathy Duff to reduce the price to $4.50 per kilolitre for potable water and $4 per kilolitre for non-potable water until the region’s drought declaration is lifted.
The renewed debate over standpipe water pricing followed a sustained public campaign after the cost was more than doubled – from $4.10 to $10 per kilolitre – at Council’s June meeting.
Cr Duff, the only person to vote against the price rise in June, said the region was in the grip of one of its worst droughts in decades, and it was time for Council to show care and compassion for residents whose tanks had run dry.
Cr Duff’s motion to reduce the price to $4.50 was supported by Mayor Brett Otto and Cr Kirstie Schumacher but was defeated 4-3 when Crs Roz Frohloff, Gavin Jones, Danita Potter and Scott Henschen opposed it.
Cr Roz Frohloff then moved that the price be dropped to $7 for the remainder of this financial year, but raised back to $10 on July 1 next year with a percentage increase thereafter.
This provoked more debate.
“At these prices, we are well outside of what I think is fair and reasonable to the most vulnerable,” Mayor Otto said.
He said Unity Water, a commercial water provider, was only charging $4.46.
“I don’t understand why we are charging $7. I feel it is certainly going to put people under pressure,” he said.
He said at $7, a mum with four children using standpipe water would pay almost $1200 extra than the same person on town water.
More discussion ensued and Cr Frohloff’s motion was defeated unanimously.
A related motion – submitted prior to the meeting by Cr Duff – was then brought forward for debate.
This proposed to return the price to its original $4.10 per kilolitre level until Council’s infrastructure team undertook a full review of standpipe charges across the region and reported back to Council.
At this point, CEO Mark Pitt warned that if this motion was lost, the status quo – ie. $10/kl – would remain.
Councillors seemed to be agreeing the cost should be lowered but the amount and duration of the reduction – and whether the price should be $4.10, $4.50, $5 or $6 – became the topic of another lengthy debate and amendments.
Cr Duff said she was begging her fellow councillors to show some compassion, some empathy for the community.
Mayor Otto agreed, saying it was an opportunity to get things right and support the most vulnerable.
“I plead with you to support this resolution,” he said.
More discussion followed, with Cr Jones saying he “was over” the issue and the $4.10 figure would “become irrelevant” after the review because Council was a business and had to be sustainable.
“I take offence at people in the community who say we do not listen, we do not work for the people. That is the most outrageous statement … there’s been some treatment dished out to councillors. I’m a public figure. Give it to me, I don’t care. But there are some things out there that are hard to cop,” Cr Jones said.
He said “sheer frustration” rather than emotional comments “pulling at heartstrings” had brought him to the point of accepting a three-month price reduction.
However, Cr Jones moved an amendment – seconded by Cr Frohloff – that Council charge $6/kl for potable water and $5/kl for non-potable water until December 31.
At this time, Councillors would be presented with a detailed cost analysis and could then vote on a more permanent standpipe water price when they were in full possession of the facts.
The amended motion was passed by the same 4-3 vote which defeated the first motion at the meeting.
A video recording of the meeting is expected to be posted on Council’s website during the next few days.
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During the course of the discussions, it emerged that:
- Councillors made June’s decision to raise the price of standpipe water from $4.10 to $10 per kilolitre in the absence of any detailed analysis of what the right price should really be.
- Council had planned to increase the price of household water connections by 4 per cent in this year’s Budget, but decided to limit the increase to 2 per cent to provide a measure of community support during the pandemic; however, standpipe users were hit with a 150 per cent increase.
- Despite the current drought, standpipe users account for just 1.6 per cent of the region’s total water usage; consumption figures would be even less in normal times when users had tank water available.
- Council’s June decision to increase standpipe water prices by 150 per cent would have seen it earn more than $300,000 extra this financial year, even though many standpipe users are among the region’s most vulnerable residents.
- The largest standpipe users – in terms of volume – are commercial water carriers, some of whom come from other regions to fill up then resell the South Burnett’s water elsewhere. These water carriers could be reined in by introducing a licensing system that only allowed locally based carriers to use the standpipes. Locks could be installed on the high-volume water outlets at the standpipes (used by water carriers) which only licensed carriers could unlock – a simple and effective system already used by several neighbouring regions.
- Mayor Otto said he had spent 12 hours over the weekend talking with standpipe water users at Nanango and Blackbutt to get their views, and was convinced the price rise was ill-advised.
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The Council debate over standpipe water prices produced anger on social media among some residents who watched it via livestreaming.
Nanango resident Jane Erkens – who organised a petition against the July 1 price rise which attracted more than 600 signatures – said she was astonished to find standpipe water users accounted for just 1.6 per cent of the South Burnett’s total water consumption.
She thought the Council debate showed some councillors had very little real concern for their communities.
“Mayor Brett Otto, Cr Kathy Duff and Cr Kirstie Schumacher argued that Council should show some compassion and decency to standpipe users in these difficult times,” Jane said.
“I really applaud them for that.
“But I think Councillors who argued Council is a business show they don’t really understand their job and shouldn’t be doing it.”
Mrs Erkens said she had received a number of communications from local residents after the meeting.
“These surprised me because they were from people who don’t ordinarily comment on issues like this,” Jane said.
“But a lot of them said they were disappointed with performance of some Councillors and were very upset about the whole way this issue has been handled.”
* * *
Some reactions from social media:
“The majority of locals are against it, HOW can Councillors NOT listen to reason?”
“It SHOULD be about fairness too, what kind of ppl do this to their desperate neighbours. We ALL have to live here together. A town SHOULD pull together in hard times like drought, fires etc …”
“Absolutely disgusted by these ‘voices’ of our community. Cr Jones, Potter and Henschen should hang their heads in shame. Huge respect to Kathy Duff, Kirstie Schumacher & Brett Otto”
“Don’t give up folks … keep up the fight …the pack of four need to be held accountable.”
“Why does Council treat people like this?”
“Cr Duff put forward a great motion … councillors Jones, Frohloff, Potter and Henschen voted against it after carrying on how they are a compassionate council. Standpipe users account for 1.6% of all water used in our region. 1;6%! Just goes to show we do not waste water like they have been saying. What a joke. Geez, I hope it rains soon to give people a bit of reprieve.”
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