THE division between the two “sides” of Warrnambool City Council is rarely more evident than on budget night.
At last night’s meeting to adopt the budget for the next financial year, the voting was split along familiar lines — councillors Michael Neoh, Rob Askew, Jacinta Ermacora and Kylie Gaston for, and councillors Peter Hulin, Brian Kelson and Peter Sycopoulis against.
But it wasn’t just the voting that was evidence of the division. It was also the views of Warrnambool and its council that each side held.
Cr Kelson proclaimed that “our city is dying — there are no buts or ifs about that”. Cr Gaston disagreed, saying the city “is exciting and going forward”.
Cr Hulin questioned the amounts spent on Fun4Kids, the Lighthouse Theatre, the WAG, AquaZone, Flagstaff Hill and the Arc — Cr Neoh said the health and tourism benefits to the community of such things outweighed the expenditure.
Councillors Sycopoulis, Kelson and Hulin all used the phrase “stem the bleeding” in referring to the need to find greater efficiencies in the budget and curtail the rise in rates — councillors Neoh, Askew, Ermacora and Gaston all said the budget looked towards future improvements to the city and continuing necessary services while ensuring the burden didn’t fall too heavily on ratepayers.
No matter which side you agree with, the result of last night’s budget adoption was a 5.5 per cent increase in rates, split between a 3.5 per cent increase in the usual rates and charges, a new infrastructure levy of 0.5 per cent, and a rise of 1.5 per cent aimed at covering the expected shortfall in federal and state grants compared to years past.
Cr Ermacora applauded the efficiencies found in the budget which enabled the underlying rate rise of 3.5 per cent to be kept below the usual 4 per cent.
But Cr Hulin said the efficiencies didn’t go far enough, saying that rates should only rise “2.9 or 3 per cent”.
“What we don’t do is and what I’ve been saying for a considerable amount of time is we should look at the costs of things like Fun4Kids,” Cr Hulin said.
“I’ve tried to get an in-depth look at the costs for Fun4Kids to see if we could achieve a similar result in a different location or a different form, but I’ve not been given the opportunity to look at the (figures) of running the event.”
He said it was a similar matter with the WAG, the Lighthouse Theatre, AquaZone, Flagstaff Hill and the Arc.
“Our job as councillors is to bring our business expertise to the council and we should be encouraged to look at the bottom line (of these things) but we’re not given the opportunity,” he said.
He also questioned the costs associated with the council’s car fleet upgrade policy, as well as its tree selection and vegetation maintenance policies.
Cr Hulin also praised the council’s “wonderful staff” before questioning whether there was a way to “restructure and lower staff numbers”.
In voting against the budget adoption, Cr Sycopoulis offered a suggested rate rise of 4 to 4.5 per cent. Cr Kelson suggested 3 per cent.
Councillors Sycopoulis and Kelson also questioned the “losses incurred” by the WAG, the Lighthouse Theatre, AquaZone, Flagstaff Hill and the Arc.
But Cr Neoh said that “what some call losses” were in fact subsidies to “a diverse range of services” which the community benefits from.
Cr Ermacora agreed, saying running some of those services at a profit meant they “wouldn’t be accessible to the community”.
Cr Gaston also supported this point saying that “all aquatic centres in regional cities require subsidies” from councils, adding that “the checks and balances” of the budget process and the efforts of council staff found savings without councillors needing to micromanage.