Seems these days that many have a complaint about MidCoast Council.
(ie -) Here are some so far:
*communicating with Council
*failing to fix roads or potholes, grading, lack of roadside maintenance and verge trimming,
*the length of time to get anything approved,
*significant delays in the commissioning of grant funded community projects (some delayed as much as five years, resulting not only in cost blowouts, but the need to re-design those projects),
*the Christmas tree disaster,
*inaccurate water meter readings,
*spiralling council rates, water and sewer rates,
*furious complaints about zombie DAs,
*over development, especially destruction of habitat.
In January 2023, the NSW Ombudsman released Council complaint statistics (2021/22) and MidCoast Council was listed in the top 5 most complained Councils in NSW.
In the second half of 2023 MCC announced that they were undertaking a ‘Community Satisfaction Survey’, which has apparently been completed and presented to Councillors but not published, nor made available to the people who pay the rates!
Failure in Economic Development
There are also complaints from knowledgeable businesspeople about the lack of tangible support from Council for economic development, with Council introducing superficial or cosmetic projects, which sound great but are just public relations exercises which in practice deliver very little substantive benefit to the business community. All this when the commercial sector of the region is struggling judging by the number of empty shops in some local towns.
Council Rates continue to spiral with the current Rate Peg for this year being a 3.9% increase and in December our Mayor welcomed the early announcement of the 2024/25 rate peg of 4.5% – 5.5% which will hit residents in 6 months time.
Water and Sewer rates are also tipped to substantively increase in the next Council Budget to cover the deficit.
These continual rate increases will clearly impact on the budgets of many thousands of residents, particularly families and retirees in what is essentially a low socio-economic region, reducing spending on essentials goods with very little left for discretionary expenditure.
Matching Productivity and Service Levels?
While Council’s rates and charges to residents and ratepayers continually spiral one has to wonder if these rate increases are matched with improved service and or productivity. Anyone attending the recent roadshow of hurried ‘Community Conversations’ (which were generally poorly attended unless there was a burning issue such as Council’s proposal to close down a number of community swimming pools) the message seems Council could be preparing to introduce an SRV (Special Rate Variation). Judging by the deficit in the Council’s General Fund, Council could increase rates of 50% over a period of three to four years to cover the haemorrhaging General Fund, unless the serious systemic root causes are addressed and resolved. Given the information presented at the Council meeting in December, one could assume that very little work on Financial Sustainability will be completed before the next Council Elections in September.
Yet Another Consultant
Council recently commissioned yet another consultant last September 2023 to deliver a Report on ‘Financial Sustainability’, to tell them what most people already know, ie – stop wasting money needlessly; manage the business better and more efficiently; reduce the escalating administration costs, manage their human resources better, stop feuding with the unions over matters which not only embarrass the Council across the entire state which results in deep divisions and significant loss of staff morale. Is it too hard to start delivering programs and projects as promised in the Annual Operational Plans, on time and budget?
Instead of looking to continually tax the community more, or cut or reduce services, the Council needs to focus on the single largest cost area -Administration. Council’s income has been steadily increasing over the past 6 years, but it seems there has been no focus on reviewing and reducing the expenditure efficiently.
Council’s overall income has been heavily dependent on Government Grants to prop up its cash flow, which can’t continue indefinitely.
Amalgamation A Disaster
The Council’s financial sustainability has been at issue ever since the amalgamation. In 2017 after the new Council was elected, the departing Administrator, John Turner, submitted a Report to Council which cautioned that there were serious financial challenges to the tune of $15 million which needed to be addressed. Despite this, the newly elected Council plunged ahead into the abyss of moving HQ into the costly revamped Master’s building in Taree resulting in a needless three year distraction from addressing the root financial sustainability issues at that time.
In 2022 the Council’s Administration recommended upgrading the Council’s computer system. This $25 million ‘Digital Transformation’ to make the existing 2017 system work has cost in excess of $10M as of last year, but heck, who’s counting.
Plan of Action
In May 2022, Council resolved for a ‘Plan of Action’ to “return the General Fund to a surplus position within a 4 to 6 year timeframe”. That deadline was not met and no ‘Plan of Action’ was produced, so at the 28 September 2022 Council Meeting a ‘Resolution’ was adopted to push back the deadline for the ‘Financial Sustainability Strategy’:
Key clauses in that Resolution were:
“That Council note the proposal to develop a Financial Sustainability Strategy with the aim of the Strategy being incorporated into Council’s Integrated Planning and Reporting documents for 2023-2024.”
“That further workshops with Council be scheduled as required to enable the Strategy to be finalised in early 2023 and exhibited for community comment in conjunction with 2023-2024 Integrated Planning and Reporting documents”.
This deadline was also not met and the Strategy was not produced nor exhibited with the 2023-2024 Integrated Planning and Reporting documents. No public statements were made.
However, in April 2023, squirrelled within the Council’s 2023/24 Operational Plan that was placed on public exhibition was a reference under “Major Project Activities” to an item 4.1 – “Develop a MidCoast Financial Sustainability Strategy Council for Council’s Consideration” to be presented to Council December 2023.
Still No Plan
At the 13 December 2023 Council Meeting a Report by the General Manager indicated that the Report from the Consultants, AEC Group, had been submitted to Council, and that the Action Plan and AEC’s Financial Sustainability Report will be reported formally to Council in the first Quarter of 2024. (Would a private business operate at this snail pace? Just asking.)
Council’s Net Operating Result before Capital income has now grown and stands at minus $50,132,764 after 5 months into the financial year, from the minus $45.5 million in the original Projected Budget.
Delays and pushbacks
Also revealed at the December Council Meeting was the news that the ‘Service Review’ has again been pushed back till after the next Council Election in September with the explanation that it is not required to be completed by the NSW Office of Local Government FAQ sheet issued to Councils, ignoring the fact this was work previously identified, and essential in order to provide accurate data to inform the Financial Sustainability Plan.
The Asset Management Working Group Program Plan, which is taking years to produce, has also now been pushed back to 30 June 2024. The Roads Strategy has also been delayed. It may be reported to Council in February and placed on Public Exhibition for adoption in the middle of 2024.
In 2018, the then Council approved a proposal to change the structure from 5 divisions to 3, clearly that has failed and is perhaps one of the root causes, in the lack of performance, the cost blowouts and the delays in delivering projects. Each year that Council fails to complete promised budgeted projects (currently around $40 million) they are then transferred to the following year and /or eventually dropped.
One only needs to read Council’s Monthly Budget Review Reports to see how many promised projects are deferred, or abandoned, but the administration costs remain the same. How can the community have any confidence in Council’s planning processes and budgets, when so many projects are not delivered within the allocated time?
A review of the Reports on the past 3 years of Annual Operational Plans shows Council regularly fails to achieve 75% of promised programs and projects, but the administration costs are still incurred.
Clearly there are serious productivity issues. Surely by changing back to 5 divisions there could be greater focus on performance and a clearer chain of responsibility and accountability.
This would result in greater oversight at a senior level on the management and implementation of all programs and projects particularly infrastructure and community capital grants projects.
Council employs over 1000 staff and DEPA claims that MidCoast Council has had 300 staff resignations in the past 12 months.
The conservative estimate to recruit and replace a single staff member is around $20,000 (and even more for managers and specialists) so to replace 300 staff in one year would cost well above $6 million dollars. This revolving door has been operating since 2017.
DEPA reports that almost 500 of Council’s USU (United Services Union) members rejected proposals to the salary system proposed by MCC. Not good for staff confidence and little wonder this loss of information, experience and the knowledge bank, results in ratepayers and businesses not being able to speak to people who can competently deal with their issues.
So, who is responsible?
The Council Administration will tell you it’s the elected Councillors, the NSW Government will tell you it’s the elected Councillors, the community believe it is the elected Councillors, but it seems it’s not that simple:
The Reports are produced by Council Staff, most of the recommendations are produced by the Council Staff, all the background within those reports are produced by the Council Staff. These Council Reports often do not argue both sides or put all the facts before the Council. It seems Council Staff dominate the council workshops and one notes how councillors gush and thank the staff at every council meeting, to keep them on side, no doubt.
Councillors should also be held accountable for their statements and their promises.
So where do we find and persuade people to stand for council who are knowledgeable and experienced? Who understand how business and government should work? People who are not influenced nor intimidated, people who are prepared to ask questions and make the administration transparent and accountable?
Or do we call for an Administrator to be appointed?
Given the results of the last election and our knowledge of who might be standing, our money is leaning towards an administrator.
(Compiled from numerous sources, public information and informants. Ed.)