Billionaire Microsoft creator Bill Gates said that your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.
He might have slyly added that it is an even better idea not to make them unhappy in the first place.
While any move to increase residential rate payments was always going to make ratepayers unhappy, Warrnambool City Council has blown off both feet by handling the issue so poorly. It commissioned a report to inform a vote on Monday to take a rate rise request to the Essential Services Commission. The report found, among other things, the cost of providing services has risen. Council duly voted in favour of taking the request to the Commission and then promised to consult with ratepayers. To no-one’s astonishment, the news did not go down well. Council then subsequently announced it would spend $30,000 on a consultant to manage the consultation process to ensure independence and integrity. This news was akin extinguishing fires with aviation fuel.
Council’s muddled plan and ultra-defensive comments are classic hallmarks of getting things out of order.
At the core, the decision council is grappling with is what to do with increasing cost of service provision? It is in an unusual position as a growing regional local government body charged with maintaining a crumbling port that time passed by long ago, an airport and other challenges. Other councils need only grapple with picking up rubbish and mowing sporting ovals. Council needed to inform and consult before making the decision to go to the Essential Services Commission. It needed to ask the tough questions behind its decision to attempt to increase rates: what do ratepayers expect from council? If we are to live within our means and not increase rates, which services would you pay more for? Which services would you cut, if necessary? And then based on that feedback, council could have had an informed vote on several options. Instead, ratepayers are venting and if the Essential Services Commission approves the rise, all but one councillor must be feeling their chances of re-election have evaporated.