Councillor has grave reservations about budget

Cr Glenda McLean.

Cr Glenda McLean.

AFTER thorough investigation, including 100 hours of research and training, new Ararat Rural City Councillor Glenda McLean told council that she had grave reservations about the 2014/2015 budget.

The budget was adopted by council at its June meeting, including a five per cent rate rise.

Council adopts 2014/15 budget with 5% rate rise

Cr McLean indicated her concerns related to the financial position of Council regarding funding from other sources, the cost of council staff and the provision of services.

"The financial picture for other government funding for Ararat Rural City is negative," she said.

"When I first got onto council I offered to the administration all my homework of about $90,000 in grants which were possible for this council to apply for. I am disappointed to find we haven't applied for these grants or I have not heard back from them."

Cr McLean said it was also unfortunate that compared to other councils, Ararat council had not had an emergency meeting to develop a contingency plan and budget items to address shortfalls.

She said that budget items like taking out a $1 million loan for the Performing Arts Centre needed to be double checked as part of the $3.55 million upgrade for the PAC, at a time of constraint with the budget.

In relation to asset renewal, Cr McLean said this year's budget figures showed the start of a downward slide in asset renewal across the area.

"I am concerned we are going to have the equivalent of about four more swimming pools that really upset the public about our capacity to manage our infrastructure," she said.

"In addition, a contingency meeting of Council needs to plan ahead for the requirements facing us all from the State Government changes to local government performance monitoring which will be introduced next month," she said.

"Apart from additional staff costs to prepare regular voluminous reports to the State Government, Ararat will face constant scrutiny when our costs are compared to other councils in Victoria. This will accentuate the pressure of the bad press local government is already experiencing."

Cr McLean said the second concern affecting this year's budget was the cost of Council staff.

"The salary costs for 2014/15 are $10,234,000. This is for 132 people. Whilst the role of local government is not just services, it is to administer legislation - and at last count I noticed 85 relevant Acts and regulations and that means we need a qualified health officer and an engineer to cope with this work - but an analysis of the organisational chart shows that above these technical staff there are one CEO, three directors and 12 managers," she said.

"This is a worrisome ratio of management to staff, a ratio of one manager for every seven staff including those autonomous experts such as the engineer.

"I have met some really impressive staff who work on Council and this is not a reflection on the individual person, but as discussed at the Rural Councils meeting in Melbourne, rural councils cannot afford this wage structure when the rate base, service charges are low and the spread of our geographical area is 4230 square kms.

"The budget figures also show $7 million for materials and services and that includes a lot of dollars on consultants. If we stick with a highly paid staff group as we currently have, they need further training to alleviate the cost of consultants."

Services ratepayers receive for their rate dollar were also a concern for Cr McLean.

Cr McLean said there continued to be fierce debate about the fairness of the Rating Strategy and that all councillors wrestled with the most equitable arrangement.

She said the last straw for people who pay big rates, particularly the farmers, is that they are also concerned about not getting the services they deserve, and for the farmers outside Ararat this was mainly the roads.

"For 2014/15 we are committing $4,300,000 on roads, bridges, footpaths. Nearly half this amount is expected from grants, not the use of the rates. In the 2013/2014 financial year we spent 15 per cent more dollars and it was still inadequate," Cr McLean said.

Cr McLean said it wasn't just dollars spent on the roads, it was also important to influence VicRoads.

"As you are aware many roads in the municipality are dangerous - especially around Rossbridge and this is urgent to fix by getting VicRoads on the job," she said.

"If you live on Vincent Street or Port Fairy Road the astonishing B Double traffic going south and the effect on the roads is extraordinary, so when we talk about this budget not having a debt - the actuality is that the decline in roads money is building up a bad debt in infrastructure just like the Ararat swimming pool."

Cr McLean said she believed the budget is not robust enough as it stands to recover from grant shortfalls.

"It is in danger of leaving a debt legacy in its infrastructure, and is not equitable in its service provision," she said.

"Further work is required for this budget to support the majority of stakeholders in Ararat Rural City."

Councillor responses to budget adoption - See this page.

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