The Lismore Council Mayor, General Manager and a councillor found themselves in an ‘awkward’ spotlight last night when the Matters Arising turned to the subject of the Airport Annualised Landing Fees.
At Council’s ordinary meeting of 8 February 2022 it was resolved that Council amend the airport fees to: ‘annual subscriptions as prior to landing fee increases on 1 July 2021 and the current fee structure remain for the weekend/ recreational pilots’.
For the adopted Fees and Charges to be amended, the proposed changes are required to be advertised for a period of 28 days.
Executive Summary and Disclosures
The Executive Summary said that following the public exhibition of the proposed fee amendment via the Your Say Lismore page on Council’s website, all submissions received were supportive of the proposed change.
During the Disclosures of Interest, Cr Andrew Gordon said that he had an interest in the matter as he had been a member of the aero club 20 years ago. ‘It’s non-pecuniary and certainly non-significant.’
In her Public Access minutes, Lismore Airport Action Group representative Judith Forsyth wanted to speak against the reversion of the fees back to the earlier 2021 fee structure. ’My concern about the reversion of the fees is that I think that we have an airport that’s currently running at an $800,000 loss per annum, as far as I understand. Now there is a proposal that the fees be reduced for the users of the airport, particularly for small planes, and that in fact last year, those fees were increased, which I thought was probably a reasonable move by council, on the basis that the airport runs at a loss.’
Ms Forsyth said she felt users needed to pay a little bit in terms of that amenity. ‘It’s a very expensive amenity to run. The proposal that the fees be reverted back to the earlier 2021 fee structure, which is the cheapest structure, I find fairly astounding given that the airport runs at such a loss. It’s not unreasonable to ask users to contribute somewhat to the costs of the airport.
‘If those fees are reverted, I and my group would consider that pretty much a subsidy by council to the user groups, which we as ratepayers, don’t find acceptable. It’s not a subsidy that we would support and if there is a rescission of the proposal then we would fully support that in terms of no reduction in fee structure for users.
‘My point here tonight, and I’m hoping that you will consider that given that Lismore is in such dire straits as it is post floods that we don’t go subsidising via ratepayers fees – companies and small businesses that can probably well pay for themselves.’
Cr Gordon moved the motion
During the debate, Cr Gordon moved the motion that the staff recommendations be adopted. ‘We’ve seen back in February that the council resolved to look at the airport fees and they did that for a very good reason. This is a business, we operate in a competitive environment and we want more business.
‘It was recognised that the current frame of the regime of landing fees, I guess competitively, might have been holding Lismore back.
‘Now, you’ll notice in the minutes here today, we have an Airport Master Plan, and in fact, we had a meeting today [in the Chambers] about that Master Plan which was well attended by airport stakeholders, whether they be aircraft owners, hangar owners and business operators.’
Cr Vanessa Ekins rose to speak against the motion. ‘I think it was addressed very eloquently by the speaker during public access today, who talked about user pays. We spent some time last council looking at fees and what was reasonable for people privately using an airport that ratepayers are subsidising heavily that makes a loss, and I think it was really unfair that our community is subsidising this private use.
‘Councillor Gordon talks about [how] increasing the number of aircraft increases the number of land fees, but also increases the impact on the facilities which we’re all funding. Increasing the fees is one way of giving back to the community.’
And then things got tricky.
Why was Cr Gordon invited to attend workshop?
Cr Ekins said she was disappointed in the motion. ‘I’m also really disappointed to hear that the Master Planning workshop was held with stakeholders today – we didn’t know about that. I didn’t know about that. Was Councillor Gordon invited to attend that workshop and none of the rest of us were? I would have liked to have been there to have heard what happened.
‘I’d like a response as to why we weren’t informed that that workshop was on and given the opportunity to go and hear. How did Councillor Gordon know that there was a stakeholders meeting today about the Master Plan for the airport? I think we should all be invited. I’d like to know why you [Cr Gordon] were there?
Cr Gordon said he was invited. ‘I was there because the stakeholders told me the meeting was on and asked me if I’d come and support the meeting.’
‘Just a little bit awkward’
There was quite a long period of quiet before Cr Ekins spoke to the silence.
‘Well, that’s just a little bit awkward.’
A staff member came to the rescue by saying the meeting held earlier in the day with the airport stakeholders was part of the Master Planning process right from the beginning of the exercise, ‘which was started back in I think February. It was only intended to be a session with the airport users. And that’s where the invitation wasn’t sent out to counsellors and put in the diary as normally would because it was a workshop with the airport users.’
Cr Ekins said she understood that it was a workshop for airport users. ‘I’d like to know why Councillor Gordon was there and was he there in his capacity as an airport user?’
Sat in the back and said nothing
Cr Gordon said he didn’t use the airport. ‘I was sitting there simply because I was asked to attend by some of the stakeholders and I sat in the back corner and said nothing during the whole meeting – I just listened.’
Cr Adam Guise asked a question through the chair to the General Manager. ‘Can we ask who was invited to the master planning workshop? And why was Councillor Gordon the only councillor at the workshop?
General Manager John Walker reiterated the staff comment that it was a meeting of the airport users group with the planners who were doing the Master Plan. ‘I was invited as a General Manager to speak to the group. Apart from that there was some council staff who had directly involved in the airport planning.
There’s a mayor in there
‘Councillor Gordon, as he mentioned, came, as did the mayor. The mayor, I think was in the building and came along as well. And that is the extent of who was there from an officer point of view. We invited the user group to meet with the airport planners, and I think that’s highly appropriate.’
At this point, the viewer’s opinions from the live stream gallery went into overdrive with comments suggesting it was a ‘boys club’ and a conflict of interest for either Cr Gordon or the Mayor to vote on the issue.
One viewer suggested ‘if the shoe was on the other foot they would throw the book at Ekins or Guise’.
The Mayor said that if there were no other topics of discussion or questions, he would put the motion to a vote that:
• Council reintroduce annualised landing subscriptions for the Lismore Regional Airport effective 10 May 2022 and be listed in Council’s Fees and Charges and that the fees for 2021/22 be as follows:
a) Resident aircraft per annum – general aircraft: $356.25
b) Resident aircraft per annum – ultralight: $240.88
c) Commercial Operations – unlimited movements: $707.50.
Those in favour of adopting the Airport Annualised Landing Fees were Crs Colby, Hall, Jensen, Rob, Gordon, Cook Bing and Krieg.
Those opposed were Crs Ekins, Guise and Bird.