Who are the people that will be deciding where Byron Shire’s rate rise money will go?
With council acknowledging its has a trust deficit with the community, a citizens jury panel of 28 randomly selected anonymous ratepayers has been brought into decide how the rate rise funds will be spent.
This ‘bold new trust-building project’ is being led by the newDemocracy foundation.
While sworn to anonymity, The Echo asked three panellists a few questions.
How old are you?
Panelist one: 59
Panelist two: 36
Panelist three: let’s just say over 60
What motivated you to apply for this panel?
Panelist one: I have a solid understanding of budgets and government fiscal policy and processes having had extensive experience in place making and government.
Panelist two: I felt confident in “The newDemocracy Foundation” concept. Bringing people from the local community around the table to help the council on important issues of the Byron shire is a great idea. I couldhear some complains from friends, neighbours and tourists about Byron management. This gave me the base knowledge to understand the issues the shire is facing. I thought I could bring ideas to the panel, which would have help for the creation of the final report.
Panelist three: I have known about Citizens Juries for quite a few years, and I was interested to experience one. I also wanted to better understand the challenges and opportunities facing Byron Shire.
Do you feel you had enough time to get up to speed with the finances and issues?
Panelist one: Council has been very transparent about its financial position and the panel has been provided with a number of documents to peruse prior to its first session, but there are still two full days ahead of us to further delve into the issues. Requests for further information is being/has been collated on topics pertinent to these discussions. I’m confident that this information will provide the appropriate data to put forward a number of possible solutions and strategies for the future.
Panelist two: Yes, I think so. The council has created a briefing book that clearly explains the situation and gives a lot of information that helps for answering the open questions that have been given to the panel. As well, we’ve been helped by Georgina Inwood and Lucy Cole-Edelstein during every meeting to make the members of the group panel interact with each other.
Panelist three: We are getting there, given that we’re not quite halfway through the process. The briefing paper was comprehensive and informative. We now have access to even more information, which will have to be digested before we meet next weekend, so there’s a lot of homework coming up.
Clearly the pressure of over two million visitors and low ratepayer base has been Byron’s issue for many years. What insights did you feel you gained from this experience so far?
Panelist one: Yes, there is pressure on the built environment and infrastructure. I have a better understanding of the dilemma Council faces in making decisions on what is a priority for its constituents and visitors alike. It will be very important for Council moving forward that they will need to be agile and innovative in resolving the current and future issues facing the whole of the shire.
Panelist two: This experience has shown me that there are a lot of concerns about the funding of the Byron Shire. I think the sustainability of a town like Byron involves the understanding of those matters by the local community as well as the federal and state government.
Byron Bay is still considered as a village with small grant funding and more than two million visitors come and use our infrastructures all year long. I think the equation is unfair.
In addition, this experience has shown me that it is possible to bring the community closer to the council. There is a real work for transparency made by the council to reinsure a lot of people who were losing confidence in the democratic process.
As a member of the panel I feel partly responsible for the accomplishment of the report and therefore involve my time and energy into the process. I think the other members of the panel feels the same.
Panelist three: How badly the state government is letting down Byron Shire. This is not to let Byron Shire off the hook for some less than perfect decisions and processes in the past – all clearly outlined in the briefing paper, which I believe you have. The state government – and the commonwealth government – are starving local governments of funds. This is not unique to Byron Shire.
However Byron has special pressures and difficulties because of the tourist numbers, our high rainfall and because of ridiculous state government decisions and processes. For example, removing the caravan parks, and therefore their revenue, from Council control; removing the trains rather than extending the lines through to the Gold Coast, thus forcing people and freight onto roads; restrictive conditions on Council spending of S94 (developer) contributions and of Disaster Relief funds. (The latter means preventive and mitigation work cannot be carried out with disaster relief funds – a big issue for a shire whose roads and other infrastructure are so badly and frequently affected by the disaster of heavy rain and flooding). And the intransigence of the state government in not allowing bed taxes and/or other ways to raise money directly from the tourists – who are not going to stop coming.
Another big issue for this Shire is the unfair and outdated funding model for the Financial Assistance Grants (FAG) from the federal government, via the state. The land values of rateable properties are set by the state government, and clearly they are set high in this Shire because of the impact of tourism/holiday letting. But because the number of land-owners paying rates is low relative to the rest of the population, many of whom are low-income, this skews the funding basis. Byron Shire has a higher level of disadvantage compared to neighbouring Ballina Shire, but receives less in Financial Assistance Grants.
I am pleased to hear that Councils are now joining forces to lobby the state and federal governments to better support and fund local governments. (The Qld Government funds local government much better than the NSW Government). At the same time, Byron Shire is making its own representations to the state government for special consideration for exactly the reasons you mention – low ratepayer base, large and poor road and other existing infrastructure, our climate, and the pressure of very high tourist numbers.
Meanwhile, Byron Shire has to make do with the revenue it has, and as the recent rate rise was set at the lowest of the three suggested options, the task our Citizens Jury has been given is, in my words, to ‘prioritise the lifeboats on the Titanic’ in relation to the maintenance of our existing infrastructure, especially roads. It’s not easy. I guess we’ll all have to slow down and drive to the road conditions because the potholes probably aren’t going away any time soon!
Have you changed your attitude towards Council from this process?
Panelist one: My attitude towards Council has softened knowing the pressure they’re under. It appears they are genuinely concerned to find solutions and are not merely “showboating”.
Panelist two: Yes, I feel more comfortable to communicate with the council if I want to.
Panelist three: No, because I try not to take attitudes and positions until they’re informed. There seems to be a much stronger ‘anti-Council’ attitude in Byron [than Lismore]. I guess this process has given me more understanding of the difficulties Councillors face, and I admire them for giving it a go.
Did you feel you had a good understanding of local government and its relationship with the community and the state government beforehand? If not, what was an important thing/s you learned?
Panelist one: I worked for the state government for a decade and have always participated at a local government level, so I do understand the relationship between the various entities. However, Byron Shire Council seems to be sincere in reaching out to the community and is striving to be absolutely inclusive. However, this community is very vocal and passionate about a plethora of issues. A delicate balance [is needed] between managing community and the need to maintain infrastructure, as well as being businesslike about the approach to the issues at hand.
Panelist two: No, I didn’t have a good understanding. The reading of the Briefing Book and explanations of members of the council helped me to understand the dependencies that exist between the community and the different governments. As an example, I’ve learned local government collect just three per cent of all taxes in Australia. The financial aspect of it is quite interesting as well. There are a lot of challenges in front of Byron and only its community can make it a better place for everyone.
Panelist three: I think my understanding was quite good before I joined the Citizens Jury. And I have also learned a lot more details, many of which are in the above answers. I hope the council makes the briefing paper we received available to everyone in the shire, as it would help to better inform local discussions about all these important issues.
– The briefing paper that was supplied to the panellists is available at http://bit.ly/2FU2s55.