Do we get value for money when it comes to road repairs?
At the June 22 Council meeting, resident Ivan Saric presented councillors his own assessment of the condition of Coolamon Avenue and the workmanship of roads in the Byron Shire.
He told the gallery he recently moved to the area.
‘My car’s suspension has been trashed,’ he said, and he questioned whether the thickness of the road is adequate. ‘I don’t believe it is a funding issue, it is sloppy work,’ he said.
In the same week Council admitted the Shire’s 502 km of roads were indeed falling apart.
Staff said in a press release on June 20: ‘Roads that were built many years ago on poor alignments and on poor sub-base were never going to withstand such a harsh climate and intensification of vehicular traffic.’
‘Chronic under-funding of essential road maintenance and renewal by successive councils has well and truly come home to roost.’
What’s needed, says general manager (GM) Ken Gainger, is road reconstruction over ‘many kilometres of sealed roads across the Shire,’ which costs $715,000 per kilometre.
Road repair will accelerate now after councillors and IPART approved a rate rise (special rate variation) in May.
The extra revenue will be dedicated to infrastructure renewal says the GM; it’s a condition that is part of the IPART [Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal] approval.
Expenditure each year will be audited by the NSW auditor-general, says the GM.
Additionally, roads to be upgraded are not being chosen ‘on political or community advocacy imperatives, but rather they were selected as part of a sophisticated strategic asset management approach which analyses and prioritises works based on their condition, usage and expected lifespan.’
And on top of all this, annual roads expenditure has increased, says the GM, ‘from $4m in 2012 to $16m in 2016.’
The Local Roads and Drainage department are responsible for renewal and repair. Along with that crew, who are employed by Council, are contractors who are awarded the job through a tender process. Local Roads and Drainage falls under Council’s largest department, Infrastructure Services, and is headed by Phil Holloway.
Infrastructure Services also look after water, sewerage and open spaces, such as sports fields and children’s parks.
As for oversight, there are three main committees that independently look over the operation of that department (and others): the internal audit advisory committee, the finance advisory committee and the community infrastructure advisory committee.
These committees – and others – are made up of councillors, staff, and members of the public who are generally experts in that field. They meet every three months and all meeting agendas and minutes are available online.
Deputy mayor Basil Cameron is on all three committees.
He told The Echo that over the years as a councillor, he has seen a positive change in Council’s financial outlook, management and culture, especially after the Finance Advisory Committee was established in late 2010.
Cr Cameron said, ‘The creation of this and other committees enabled councillors to see how resolutions impacted on the budget, and gave a better understanding of how the organisation works.’
He says that the Internal Audit Advisory Committee* was brought in just before the state government made such committees a requirement for all councils.
‘I’m not convinced that tendering gets best results,’ he says, ‘yet I haven’t seen anything that is a better process.’
And it appears there are no specific audits carried out on the Local Roads and Drainage department; only on the tender process that employs contractors.
The Echo asked, ‘Is it adequate that there is no independent oversight of that department?’ He replied, ‘There are four budget reviews annually, in addition to community membership of the transport and infrastructure committee.
‘The community also have a say through the community strategic plan. In 2016, the entire financial health of Council was tested independently by the IPART, with a particular focus on Council’s plans and ability to reduce the roads and drainage works backlog.
‘Through this process, additional funds raised as part of the special rate variation are quarantined for roads and drainage.’
Within committee meetings where tender contractors are discussed, most are marked ‘confidential’.
The Echo also asked, ‘Do you support Council’s being more transparent with these meetings by publishing them in full – except where costs are associated with the tenders? From memory you have previously supported such an idea but I understand no councillors have pursued this’.
Cr Cameron replied ‘Yes.’
‘We got behind with roads a long time ago,’ Cr Cameron says, and claims tourism is one of the main drivers for the worsening of roads.
When asked if the proliferation of secondary dwellings have also had an impact, Cr Cameron replied: ‘Yes – although I voted for secondary dwellings DA costs to be reduced around six or seven years ago, I raised the issue at the time that traffic could increase if more infill housing were built.’
Another aspect of Council’s asset management is the requirement by the state government for councils to provide a replacement value cost.
Cameron says, ‘All these assets [roads, land, buildings etc] now have a replacement cost, based on depreciation.
‘But who will buy it? This is not a saleable asset – it’s an artificial view, which actually looks bad because it increases depreciation charges that can result in a deficit.’
Yet one of the main improvements for Council management in recent times, says Cameron, is that asset audit evaluations have now been completed and will be available online.
‘We have never had this before,’ he says, ‘and an asset management system is now in place and being improved each year.’
Infrastructure asset audit
Council’s Infrastructure Services manager Phil Holloway and his staff undertook an asset audit not only of the road network, but all of Council’s infrastructure assets prior to the rate hike in May.
His department found that 42 per cent of sealed roads were considered poor, 35 per cent fair and just 23 per cent good. Unsealed roads were not as bad off, with ‘30 per cent poor, 10 per cent good and 60 per cent fair.’
Bridges and footbridges, however, need attention, with only 34 per cent of them considered good.
Similarly kerbs and gutters rated 64 per cent as poor, while 18 per cent were fair and 18 per cent good.
As for causeways, 29 per cent are poor, 21 per cent good and 50 per cent fair.
* For more info on Byron council committees visit www.byron.nsw.gov.au/committees.