Council watch April
With Peter Marshall
In late March, Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council Administrator Tim Overall distributed the second tranche of Strong Community Fund grants, colloquially referred to as ‘The Merger Bribes’. The Administrator even alluded to this in his media release: “It is very rare for councils to have $9m to spend on community infrastructure.” The take-home message must surely be that local government funding remains broken, and isn’t fixed by one-off grants or forced mergers.
Communities and groups that are recipients of the funds will be grateful for the money. Some of it has sensibly been allocated to refurbishments and improvements to existing facilities, which won’t add to council’s running costs nor depreciation (they may in fact save money), and may actually improve council’s bottom line.
However, some new facilities are proposed, with no apparent plans for their ongoing funding. This was a major issue in the recent Western Australian State Election, with the Liberal and National Parties falling out over their ‘Royalties for the Regions’ program, which funded infrastructure in regional areas, but not the running costs. The result was some facilities being closed by councils unable to afford to run them.
Almost $1 million has been allocated to vague ‘beautification’ projects in Braidwood, Bungendore and Captains Flat. Beautification in those towns could be achieved by attending to the poor maintenance of some of council’s existing assets. Some of these neglected assets are heritage-listed, such as the Bungendore School of Arts and the Captains Flat Community Hall.
There will also be disappointment in some areas that such a small proportion of the funds has been allocated to the roads and bridges which form so much of council’s ‘infrastructure backlog’. Renewing existing infrastructure can actually save money on maintenance and depreciation.
My guess is that the NSW Government discouraged this. It has been reported that John Barilaro dissuaded QPRC from spending $1.7 million to ‘fix the dip’ at the Queens Bridge, but his reason for this isn’t publicly known. However, roadworks don’t provide the photo opportunities for Administrators and local MPs that some of the allocated funding does.
On that topic, The Greens and Labor have both spoken out about Administrators planning to stand for election to council, highlighting the unfair and unprecedented advantage of a lengthy incumbency with absolute power and a blank cheque. Labor has even gone so far as threaten to refer any such Administrator to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
I am only aware of two Administrators who are former Mayors and who therefore may have aspirations in the September council elections – Tim Overall in Queanbeyan and Dean Lynch in Cooma. The Canberra Times reported that Mr Overall “is yet to confirm if he will run as a candidate in September”, while some others continue to sift the tea leaves.