Councillors reluctantly pass 2018-19 budget

Typical rates for Wyong 2018-19Typical rates for 2018-19

Central Coast Council narrowly avoided a Washington DC-style fiscal shut down when several Councillors moved to reject the 2018-19 delivery program, operational plan and resourcing strategy recommended for adoption by staff at its June 25 meeting.

Mayor Jane Smith moved the adoption of the 2018-19 budget with some amendments, but Clr Greg Best introduced an amendment, seconded by Clr Doug Vincent, that the operational plan 2018- 19 be deferred pending an “urgent and thorough briefing around equity, sustainability and issues raised this evening”. “Council notes in light of the number of amendments and budget adjustments, Council is now not yet ready to legislate this budget,” Clr Best said. “As this is a financial supply issue, Council recognises the need for this matter to be urgently reported back to Council,” he said.

Speaking for the amendment, Clr Best said he acknowledged the extraordinary efforts by all team members, championed by the directors, who prepared the budget. “However, in my time, I have not seen so much ambiguity around such a document,” he said. “I understand fiscal responsibility, but I understand we have got to get it right.” He said a $64,000 surplus out of a $740m budget was inadequate and would be overrun. “We are going to increase rates by 2.3 per cent, $20m bucks, we may not realise we are going to put the rates up by that type of figure, but that is what we are going to do.

“When we came into amalgamation for efficiencies, I would not have expected we were chasing the rates up but chasing the rates down,” Clr Best said. Mayor Jane Smith said the Local Government Act stated that a budget had to be in place by the first day of the financial year, within a week of the meeting. “I am proposing we seek an extension due to the magnitude of this Council, formed by the NSW Government, and I believe a short extension would not be beyond that pale to get this right,” Clr best said.

Clr Doug Vincent said Councillors should reject the budget “just on the equity issue across the wards”. He said the way the capital expenditure budget had been presented, made it difficult for the ratepayer to determine the share of equity that was being spent on their particular ward. The majority of capital works projects were classified as “regionwide”. According to Clr Vincent’s calculations, by allocating money spent on roads capital works to individual wards, the spend in Gosford West would be $38m, The Entrance $29m, Wyong $25m, East Gosford $23m and, Budgewoi $17m. He said the Budgewoi expenditure was “nearly half of what another ward can receive, so in my view, I would just prefer to be voting against this budget and saying it is not equitable.” Clr Troy Marquart also spoke in favour of the amendment, stating he was “very concerned about the wafer thin surplus. “I personally would not be able to vote for the budget the way it stands tonight, I would be terrified that we only had a $64m surplus,” Clr Marquart said. Acting CEO, Mr Brian Glendenning, said Clr Best’s proposed amendment was unlawful and the Mayor had a legal obligation to strike it out.

Mr Glendenning said in order to be lawful, the amendment would have to specify an amended budget needed to be presented to the Councillors before June 30. Mr Glendenning said workshops and briefings provided by staff to Councillors had been extensive “quite deliberately because staff realised that this was the first budget of this size to be considered by a council of 15. “It is true there are issues perceived by some Councillors about equity between wards, but if that is the main reason for Councillors not accepting this budget, I cannot recall an instance when a Council has done that before, you would be making history,” Mr Glendenning said. “I can’t advise strongly enough that Council needs to adopt an operational plan prior to June 30, otherwise Council would not be able to function from July 1,” he said.

He also reminded Councillors that their oath and the Local Government Act required them to serve the interests of the whole local government area and not just a single ward. In response to Mr Glendenning’s advice, Deputy Mayor, Chris Holstein, said: “Don’t give the government a reason to say, ‘right, Central Coast Council, you can’t even act on your own budget, move on’.” Clr Best then added a new clause to his amendment to require an extraordinary meeting on or before June 29. Clr Jeff Sundstrom spoke against the amendment: “I also want to express my surprise that a Councillor who holds himself up as the Dean of Councillors would bring an unlawful amendment to Council. Mayor Smith also spoke against amendment and said it was a concerning and impractical path to take.

The amendment was lost, but several Councillors continued to oppose the passing of the 2017-18 budget. Clr Kyle MacGregor withdrew his earlier decision to second Mayor Smith’s motion to adopt the budget with some amendments, including a requirement for a detailed briefing before the end of the first quarter. “The general trend, no matter where you live, is that every single one of these wards we live in has an area that is seriously under-funded,” Clr MacGregor said. He said infrastructure was particularly wanting in the “working class areas, the commuting areas, those with high domestic violence rates. “I do not see this budget as changing that, I see this budget as perpetuating that.

“Last election, you saw people vote for change, you saw people wanting change and I don’t see this budget doing that.” Clr Louise Greenaway seconded the resolution to adopt the budget and said Councillors had been given a “reasonably significant” amount of time to bring matters to the fore that they were concerned about. Deputy Mayor Holstein said: “Whilst there are aspects of the motion I have some reservations with, it does move us forward. “I have really got to wonder if some of the motivation here is ‘I don’t like the amalgamation or I don’t like the ward system’ so they turn the whole thing upside down and who wins then? Clr Jilly Pilon and Clr Lisa Matthews were not present at the meeting so the budget was passed with votes in favour from Clrs Holstein, Mehrtens, Sundstrom, Gale Collins, McLachlan, Greenaway, Best and Smith.

Source: Agenda item 2.1, Jun 25 Central Coast Council ordinary meeting Jackie Pearson, journalist