My father was a school principal, and when I was young, we lived in several towns on the south coast of NSW. Being a leading citizen, he was across community issues. Often these needed action by the local council.
Around the dinner table, dad often commented on local government processes and the people who ran them. He was not impressed. He imbued in me poor regard for this level of government.
Many years later, when I was climbing the political ladder, it was suggested that I run for the local council. My father's words came back to me, and I declined.
However, one of my daughters did serve as a councillor on both Maitland and then Newcastle City Council (NCC). Listening to her nine years of experience reminded me that local government in this century is about much more than the three Rs: rates, roads, and rubbish. They are large significant corporations with big budgets and a wide range of services, crucial to the wellbeing and functioning of a local community such as Newcastle.
That is why in the recent council elections, voters needed to take the time to understand the local issues, the record of current councillors, and whether they have been wise stewards of the resources and processes that guide expenditure on key services.
It is not surprising that none of this was mentioned in the 'Getting the job done' glossy flyer that was distributed by the ALP ahead of the election.
Now that an ALP-controlled council has been re-elected, I hope their future decisions will show more wisdom in the selection of projects, and the allocation of ratepayers' money, than we have seen in the past seven years.
I moved back to Newcastle one month before the previous local government election in September 2017 to find that the outgoing council had decided to increase land rates by almost 50 per cent.
One of the first actions of the newly elected council was to boost their councillor allowances to the maximum allowable, forever, without the need for an annual review. This gave the lord mayor a 20 per cent pay rise, and the councillors a 13.5 per cent rise.
Perhaps the most controversial NCC expenditure decision in the last term was to relocate the council administration from the roundhouse to rented premises in the city's west end. The old council administrative building had recently been refurbished. But did the councillors also have to move into palatial new premises from the historic city hall building? It was quite adequate for their needs, and had been extensively upgraded both inside and outside.
And why all the secrecy? Perhaps it was because the costs of the move blew out from $7 million to greater than $17.6 million. The costs of this move, and the ongoing rent for the west end building have been made public, and I think they are shocking. Considering NCC's $32 million deficit in the past financial year, will rates have to rise again during the new council's term to pay for this extravagance?
Another example of recent wasteful expenditure is the skate park being built on South Newcastle Beach. NCC is overseeing the construction. This is developing into an ugly, high, concrete monstrosity. Apart from its massive scale and inappropriate location, this costly project will disrupt the enjoyment of the beach for two years, as it continues at a snail's pace. The community didn't want this skate bowl in that location, but the council went ahead anyway.
Despite NCC's public estimates of the cost being about $12 million, contracts have been let for $14.4 million, and all the rework due to washaways at the site will be extra.
Many other examples of poor decision-making have wasted ratepayers' money. These include smart light poles that don't work, the New Annual festival that costs far more than its value, and a further $25 million expansion of Summerhill landfill to accommodate waste from Sydney.
It is not surprising that none of this was mentioned in the Getting the job done glossy flyer that was distributed by the ALP before the election. The council has also expanded its marketing and events team to to spin the council's "achievements".
Post-COVID-19, there is considerable unease in the community about how governments spend public money and the resulting high level of debt. Given the past poor fiscal track record of the re-elected NCC, we can only hope that wiser decisions will be made in the new term.
Newcastle East's Dr John Tierney AM is a former Hunter-based federal Liberal senator
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