Cr Jeff Johnson’s attempt to get Ballina Council to apply for a grant to install electric vehicle charging stations narrowly failed yesterday, with Mayor Sharon Cadwallader using her casting vote to back a watered-down amendment instead.
During the debate, most councillors expressed their admiration for electric cars, but they had very different opinions about council’s role in the changeover process from internal combustion engines, especially locally.
Cr Johnson explained that the state government had announced $500 million in rebates and subsidies to encourage the rollout of electric vehicles in NSW, including a $20 million grant specifically for local government in regional areas, which would provide up to 75% of the funding for successful applicants to have EV chargers installed.
He said this initiative was designed to encourage both tourism and lower emission transport. ‘There’s not many EVs in our community at the moment but this will change dramatically in the next five to ten years,’ he said, noting that ICE engines were in the process of being phased out in many jurisdictions around the world.
Cr Johnson said, ‘I think this would be a real boost for our towns and also continue council’s leadership role, not only as an organization aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030, but also assisting our community on that journey.’
Appropriate for council?
Cr Phil Meehan sought clarification, asking if anyone was able to apply, not just councils. GM Paul Hickey said this was correct, across regional government areas including Ballina. He then confirmed that there were already EV chargers at Ballina Central, Epiq and at the Byron Wildlife Hospital in Knockrow.
Cr Cadwallader said there was also a charger at the council chambers, but it wasn’t public.
GM Hickey said there would be no upfront cost associated with applying for the grant money, but council would have to come up with a percentage of the installation fee if they were successful, perhaps 25%.
Cr Phillip Meehan said he supported electric vehicles and he supported electric vehicle charging stations, ‘but I don’t support council getting directly involved with the provision.’ He said this was more appropriate for the private sector or another level of government.
He claimed there were more than enough charging stations around the area already, with most being under-utilised. Cr Meehan went on to say there were many areas of regional NSW that needed grant support for EV charging stations more than Ballina, and that $20 million was ‘not a lot of money’ to go round.
‘I’m just thinking here about fairness across the state,’ he said, before suggesting an amendment to publicise the EV charger grant scheme throughout the shire (but not to actually apply as a council). Cr McCarthy seconded this.
Cr Eoin Johnston took issue with this amendment, saying there was a clear and growing need for more charging stations, ‘whoever provides them or wherever they’re provided.’ He noted that there were long waiting lists for all available models of electric vehicles in Australia.
Cr Jeff Johnson said he was happy to add an amendment to his motion, to the effect that people and organisations across the region would also be welcome to apply for the grants, with the publicity and support of council.
After some more argy bargy, it was decided the amendment and the original motion were incompatible – council would have to choose one or the other.
Cr Simon Chate took issue with this, saying there was no reason council couldn’t do both; apply for the grant and encourage others to also apply. ‘I’ve been to Norway,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen the beautiful charging stations everywhere. It’s just quite inspiring. It looked like the future.’
He reminded councillors that since COP22, internal combustion engines were being phased out, and that council would also be needing to expand its fleet of electric vehicles before long. ‘We’d certainly like to be in a position to charge those vehicles. So if nothing else, installing some electric vehicle chargers for council vehicles is a no-brainer.
‘We don’t want to be seen as dragging our feet on this.’
Cr Chate said he would not support the amendment, but the original motion.
Cr Nigel Buchanan said the biggest problem, prospectively, was a shortage of EV charging stations, and council should do whatever it could to ameliorate this.
Car nut wades in
Cr Rod Bruem told his fellow councillors he was a car nut, but hadn’t yet bought an electric car.
He then told a story about his mate with a Tesla who had to stop twice overnight to charge between Sydney and the Northern Rivers. After staying at his place and charging the Tesla, Cr Bruem said he ‘freaked out’ when he saw the bill.
Cr Bruem said it would be good if there were more charging stations but that the private market would respond, it wasn’t council’s responsibility.
Cr Cadwallader said she agreed and that council shouldn’t be splashing money around with multi-million dollar deficits on the way. ‘Do we really need to enter into this area when we’ve got so many important things on the books to be doing?’
She said she was concerned about potential maintenance costs and backup support.
The debate then became more heated, with an argument about whether it was ‘honourable’ to encourage government funding to go to other council areas at Ballina’s expense. Then there was a further argument about who had used the word ‘honourable’. After apologies and withdrawals, the debate continued.
Cr Jeff Johnson said ‘we probably spend more on planter boxes in car parks’ than we would on installing EV chargers.
He said there were ‘significant benefits’ to council in acting now, while there was a 75% subsidy on offer, rather than waiting.
‘The second part of my motion is for council to continue to look at opportunities for fleet renewal, to go electric. There’s significant amounts of money as part of this initiative for fleet renewal as well. That’s another part of the motion that hasn’t been focused on, which provides some real cost savings and benefits.’
Mayor Cadwallader then moved to put Cr Meehan’s amendment (which took the place of Cr Johnson’s amendment). This gained the support of Crs Bruem, McCarthy, Meehan, Ramsey and herself. With the numbers locked, the mayor used her deciding vote to make the amendment the new motion.
Very poor leadership, claims Cr Johnson
In response, Cr Jeff Johnson said he found it extraordinary that the mayor had used her casting vote to decide that Ballina Council would ‘not apply for grant funding opportunities that our state government – which is a Liberal National government – provided to promote electric vehicle charging stations in public car parks.’
He said he was shocked that the potential ‘minor’ costs associated with providing EV charging stations for the community wouldn’t even be investigated. ‘I just find that extraordinary that we would simply want to say “no, we won’t be involved with that.” We’ll promote it instead.
‘I just find that very poor leadership,’ continued Cr Johnson. ‘I really thought this would just be a unanimous decision today. I think we’ve missed a real opportunity to do a really great thing and promote our town and businesses.’
Apparently stung, Mayor Cadwallader asked GM Paul Hickey to elaborate on the other things council was doing to change its fleet over to electric vehicles. Mr Hickey talked about zero turn mowers.
Back from the future?
Cr Phil Meehan reiterated that it wasn’t council’s business to be installing EV chargers, any more than it was council business to be installing petrol stations. Cr McCarthy agreed with him, adding there was no point installing EV chargers now when future ones would be faster.
Cr Simon Chate said he was concerned that once again Ballina Council was stepping back from the future. ‘It feels like we’re letting our community down,’ he said.
Cr Jeff Johnson asked Cr Meehan to explain why, when he had told council he wanted the EV grant money to go to communities beyond Ballina, ‘why does he want us to promote it in our community, which could take money away from those much needed communities that he was just advocating for? Or is he intending for Ballina Council to spread the word throughout the state? Even though we’re not going to be part of the program?’
There was no audible response from Cr Meehan.
With Cr Johnson’s original motion scrubbed from further consideration, councillors agreed unanimously to support Cr Meehan’s amendment (to publicise the grant scheme but not actually apply for it as a council).
Cr Eoin Johnston said he was supporting the watered-down motion because ‘something is better than nothing.’
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