Before you vote at next month’s Council elections on December 4, it could be worth considering what the current lot did with your dollars.
With all but three members of the ‘Class of 2017’ choosing to run again, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and consider how they handled the purse strings.
Perhaps the biggest economic move made by the current Council was the 2017 decision to raise Council rates by 33.5 per cent over four years.
The extra $11.7 million in revenue was to be spent on asset maintenance and renewal, and to reduce the local infrastructure backlog that previous Councils had allowed to blow out massively.
And to a significant degree, the Council kept this promise, with the extra money being spent on the bread and butter of local government: local roads, drains and other basic assets.
While councillors had little choice other than to spend the extra rates revenue in this way (the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal was watching closely) it’s fair to say that this outgoing Council did increase spending on Capital Works more generally.
Between the 2019 and 2020 financial years, an extra $20 million was poured into roads, rubbish and other basic assets, including the complete replacement of the creaking Brunswick Heads road bridge.
Bolstering the road-building fund was a seemingly never-ending stream of State government cash, driven by the Coalition’s desire to win back the State seat of Ballina.
Among the waves of funding was $20m provided by the State to help fund the controversial Byron Bypass.
Even with this big pile of government cash, the economic management of the bypass project was not Council’s finest moment (we’ll leave the debate over the environmental management of the project for another day).
The initial Council commitment of $4m blew out to nearly $6m, owing to a series of delays, the responsibility for which must, at least partly, be sheeted home to the Council itself.
Somewhat less controversial were major upgrading works on Ewingsdale Road to finally deal with the killer potholes that had regularly claimed car suspensions for decades.
While these works were almost certainly welcome, the same cannot be said for the ill-fated lighthouse sculpture built on the roundabout at the intersection of Ewingsdale Road and Bayshore Drive.
Nicknamed the ‘Disco Dong’, owing to its unfortunate resemblance to male genitalia, the Council forked out $55,000 for the much-derided sculpture. The installation was not only ‘aesthetically challenged’ in the eyes of most, it was eventually found to be structurally unsound and had to be taken down.
But it could be argued that the keepers of Council’s coffers had the last laugh – the silvery birds that made up the ‘Dong’s’ distinctive visage were sold off for the princely sum of $64,000.
Nevertheless, the cost to our collective egos from briefly being the laughing stock of the State is difficult to calculate.
The cost of net zero
Moving beyond roads, drains and bridges, one of the largest areas of Council expenditure has resulted from the efforts to move to net zero emissions.
The Council has committed to achieving 100 per cent net zero emissions for Council operations by 2025.
It has also promised to source 100 per cent of Council’s energy needs through renewable energy within 10 years (2027) and become certified under the Climate Active Carbon Neutral Standard by 2025/26.
Among the key, and most costly, projects undertaken as part of this endeavour is the construction of a bioenergy facility connected to the Byron Bay Sewage Treatment Plant.
Initially budgeted at $12m, the budget for this project has already ballooned out to $16m before a single pipe has been laid.
The Myocum solar farm is also a major source of future expenditure, with Council estimating that the project will require at least $12m to complete.
There are hopes that the State and federal Governments will come to the funding party for both of these projects, but as yet no money has been placed on the table.
The next Council is likely to find these government dollars considerably more difficult to come by. The State seat of Ballina is now more safely in the hands of Greens MP Tamara Smith, meaning that the Coalition’s election strategists are likely to direct their considerable largesse and pork barrels elsewhere.