Brunswick Heads residents have cast doubt on deputy premier Andrew Stoner’s claims that revenue from the village’s three public caravan parks is being used to maintain adjoining Crown reserves, saying the money is being ‘milked’ out of the parks for use elsewhere.
And the secretive management agencies running the three parks on Crown reserves, North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP) and its administrative body, the North Coast Accommodation Trust (NCAT), have so far refused to provide details on how revenues are spent and how the organisation is run.
During a whistle-stop visit to the Byron shire last week, Mr Stoner was asked about revelations that the controversial takeover of the parks by the state government in 2006 had stripped millions of dollars from Byron shire and whether he would support returning the parks’ management to Byron council.
Mr Stoner responded by saying the revenues from the parks were ‘invested’ in the parks themselves, adjoining reserves, as well as into the Crown reserve system ‘in the region’.
But residents have derided his response, saying there’s ‘something amiss’ in the statement about where the revenue is being invested, as the foreshore parklands are in a ‘wanting state’ with obvious degradation indicating that very little if any money is being spent on these adjoining reserves.
The reserves are popular and well used picnic and recreational open space areas at the Terrace, Banner and Memorial Parks and a foreshore strip in front of the Ferry Reserve caravan park.
Resident and longtime campaigner against NCHP’s contentious encroachment of public land, Patricia Warren, told Echonetdaily she was ‘furious’ with Mr Stoner’s response, which ‘reads like smoke and mirrors’.
‘Anyone’s cursory audit of these vital foreshore parklands, mere handkerchiefs of open space and public recreational lands, would find them in a wanting state,’ Ms Warren said.
‘Rock walls are subsiding, upstream there is savage undercutting and collapsing of the foreshore banks, formerly grassed spaces are patched with fine blue metal, bare earth is exposed, and [there is] tyre rutting on the foreshore at Ferry Reserve. [It’s a] signal that little, if any, revenue is invested in the adjoining reserves in Brunswick Heads.
‘Any argument to the contrary by Mr Stoner, the minister for local government, Don Page, or park management is null and void as all would be well aware of the voluminous paper trail over years complaining about the ongoing neglect of Brunswick’s foreshore parklands,’ Ms Warren said.
‘And any suggestion that monies have been invested into “the Crown reserve system in the region” is a nonsense as the notion of “region” is itself physically indefinable and much more likely to be defined on a political whim.
‘I believe that in 2006, while under council’s management, the caravan parks’ turnover was around $2.6m. Mr Stoner’s position has to be that revenues are now higher than that. So how much money has been milked out of Brunswick Heads that is owed to these adjoining Crown Reserves?
‘Where is it squirrelled away, by whom and for whose benefit?’
Requests for comments and repeated calls by Echonetdaily to NCHP and NCAT boss Jim Bolger, a former Byron council staffer, have been ignored.
Similar questions have recently been asked in parliament by MLC and former Byron shire mayor Jan Barham.
Official answers by the government are due soon, with most questions seeking to find out whether NCAT follows what are regarded as normal procedures by a government agency handling public funds, including whether NCAT produces an annual report and/or an audit and what the annual income of the NCAT is, with a breakdown for each of its parks.
The takeover of the parks seven years ago, on what many saw as trumped up charges by the then Labor government of council mismanagement of the parks, has continued to be a thorn in the side for the coalition government, with the diversion of millions of dollars in revenue from the council to the state at the crux of the issue.
Last year, just before the council election, Byron council managers lifted the lid on a once-secret report which showed those claims of mismanagement were spurious.
Disgraced former NSW Labor lands minister Tony Kelly is believed to have signed off on the takeover without warning after council, in the belief that a proposed land swap would have short-changed the residents of Brunswick Heads, rejected the land swap.
NCAT boss Mr Bolger was appointed to head the agencies running the parks.
Early last year during the controversial debate over the sale of public beachfront land at Lennox Head to the NCHP, it was revealed that Mr Bolger had been involved in property investment jointly with Ballina general manager Paul Hickey, who was a former colleague at Byron council and a close friend.
The conflict of interest revelation by Echonetdaily prompted then Ballina mayor Phil Silver to ask Mr Hickey, who had been delegated to handle the proposed sale, to step out of the council chamber during further debate over the contentious issue, which had sparked community protests.
Cr Silver’s casting vote eventually saw the sale through.