As COVID-19 precautions continued, there was no singing and proceedings were on the internet again for yesterday’s Ballina Shire Council meeting.
First up was the heated discussion about the future of 26 Endeavour Close, Ballina, currently the home of naval cadets from the TS Lismore.
The motion to revert the site to market value was finally passed unanimously, with amendments to consider the site for other uses, including the SES, noting the importance of the waterfront site to the community.
Much of the meeting was devoted to compliance issues, with Councillor Eoin Johnston noting that ‘it’s very important to check that what is supposed to be done is done.’
Although council’s intention to employ a full-time compliance officer has been delayed until the COVID-19 situation is resolved, this person is expected to ‘have their hands full’ with additional compliance regulations coming down from the state government.
‘There’s anticipation that there will be more need for people to comply, and more hoops to jump through,’ said Cr Johnston, ‘but this is the only way to go forward as responsible local government.’
Cr Ben Smith said the key thing was to make sure businesses had enough resources to deal with additional regulation when they are already under stress due to COVID-19.
Cr Cadwallader agreed, but suggested that ‘with compliance, we need to step it up.’
Cr Nathan Willis asked the room at large, ‘when the state government asks for more work, do they give us more money?’
General Manager Paul Hickey responded, ‘Is that rhetorical? 95% of the time, no.’
Cr Willis said council needed to lobby for that situation to change.
Cr Keith Williams said, ‘a major part of cost-shifting from state government to local government is increasing compliance work, which they don’t fund. We need a strong local government voice, sector-wide.
‘Individual councils can bleat about things but they will ignore us.’
Cr Williams said that as a small business owner himself, he appreciated that it had been a very difficult period over recent months, and he appreciated council staff’s approach to try and assist people rather than being the police force, with less focus on fines and more on helping people comply.
Mayor David Wright spoke on the subject of swimming pool fences, noting that there were 132 breach notices, but less than half had been looked at so far. ‘The tragedy of that is two kids the other day. We definitely need to do that, even if it costs a bit of money.’
The mayor said there was also a lot of worry in the community about businesses in places like Lennox Head recently – ‘when it’s sunny you can’t move. How many businesses are trading against COVID regulations? People are genuinely not going out because they’re scared. We need to look at how that can be regulated.’
Councillor Jeff Johnson spoke about dog regulations being openly flouted at risk to community health, particularly children, at the Lennox Head surf club on the weekend, with 12 dogs in a no dogs area with 80 people.
Cr Smith said steps were being taken to address that this week.
The mayor said when it comes to COVID and dogs, ‘you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.’
The compliance motion was carried unanimously.
In a brief discussion of the GemLife manufactured home estate DA in West Ballina, council staff explained that the project had gone back on exhibition with a revised, much higher budget. People who had already objected to the DA did not need to lodge their objections again, unless they had new points to make.
Regarding council donations to community groups, there was some discussion of the legitimacy of the Lismore Symphony Orchestra’s funding application associated with the ‘Proms on the Beach’ performance.
Cr Sharon Parry said most of the musicians in the orchestra lived in Ballina Shire, and said it was a ‘real shame that we couldn’t find it in our hearts to cover their rent’ as the orchestra was a wonderful thing, and gave a sense of community, achievement and belonging.
Cr Johnson said the Proms were a significant event: ‘We would be at a loss if they decided not to come here.’
After some discussion, it was decided that money for the Air Force Association ceremony (which was no longer proceeding due to COVID) would be transferred to the LSO.
In a discussion about the Ballina Coast and Hinterland Destination Management Plan 2021-2030, councillors agreed that eco, food and sports tourism was the way of the future, with Ballina on track to capture this market with new cycle paths and other initiatives.
Cr Williams talked about birdwatching as an example of a ‘high yield’ tourism sector, in which one person spends a hundred dollars rather than a hundred people spending one dollar.
‘We need to compete with our northern neighbour and attract that higher yield tourism,’ he said.
Councillors agreed that more could be done in this direction, noting the great success of whale watching and bike tracks, with Ballina’s massive natural advantages in this area so far not fully utilised.
The push to develop Ballina hinterland destinations was also an important part of this.
Cr Cadwallader pointed out that the recent loss of the tourism arm of Lismore Council meant there would be less competition for grant money.
She also emphasised that Ballina’s main point of difference with Byron in terms of tourism was value for money, which went hand in hand with the traditional family market.
Shaws Bay dredging
Another major subject of the meeting was the Shaws Bay dredging program, with tenders being revised to suit the budget situation but everything ‘starting to look really good’ according to Cr Williams.
Councillors all agreed that the fact Ballina had to pay the state government $73,000 for removing seagrass was grossly unfair, as the dredging project was designed to have a positive environmental impact and there were no guarantees that the mitigation work would even be carried out in the region.
‘It’s dumb!’ said the mayor.
Cr Cadwallader said ‘we should do everything we can to get that back or not have to pay it.’
Cr Williams said, ‘We need to make a strong point about the environmental benefits of the work. We want to see the improvement works done in our river, which is one of the unhealthiest in the state.
‘If they are taking $73,000 off us, they should at least be spending it here.’
In terms of the wider council budget, councillors all acknowledged the good work of the general manager and staff. Cr Sharon Cadwallader said, ‘These are such difficult times, but as a council we are doing extraordinarily well.’
In discussion of the koala population in the south of the shire, there was concern that spending after the bushfires was not helping the species in the areas most needed, with signage failing to stem the rising number of road deaths.
Cr Williams said, ‘Koalas are moving between areas, we need to make sure they can move to where the food is. They’re getting bowled over every day.’
Mayor David Wright agreed the koala situation was an emergency, with the species facing extinction by 2050 if nothing was done.
He said lots of restoration work was needed, as well as passages on private land. ‘We’re losing a lot. We’re losing them for the next generation.’
He said council was doing what it could, for example with lantana clearing of strike areas along Old Bagotville Road, but more money was needed to implement koala recovery plans.
No-one should be surprised at the fact that the NSW State government is cost-shifting to local government at a great rate of knots (see the GM’s response to a question about this in the story). Councils are just branches of the State government which does as it bloody-well pleases. Councils are not the independent branch of government many think they are. They are creatures of the State government and are there to do the State government’s bidding.
A good example of cost-shifting is the allocation of what have been called Federal Assistance Grants (FAGS). They’ve dropped dramatically in value over the last few of years as part of the local government “REFORM” process. The short fall is made up by ratepayers, but more than that the State government uses some of the money it would have granted us anyway to fund projects around election time. All those generous gifts by way of new infrastructure funding, etc., are just pork barrel presents to show what good guys they are ….even though it is coming out of our pockets and should have been allocated anyway!!!
What would be useful to know is how much cost shifting has occurred over the last five years and has it lead to the parlous state of many councils who are having trouble making ends meet and have to put in applications for special rate variations which are usually stamped by the State through one of their handmaidens.
Oh, and by the way how many folks are aware of the move to shift State Electoral Boundaries?!
Richmond Valley Council made submissions on this recently without the matter coming to ratepayers for consideration.