Fiscal floodgates flattened as ban defied

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IT was a night to remember, this startling, shocking glimpse of councillors in a state of loosened fiscal décolletage, a heady, sensual recline into monetary abandonment. And that was just the men.

It was shire councillors having their version of a Boxing Day-sale, cash gone in a flash and, like the recent federal budget, only capable of being fully comprehended days later.

It was your rate money – $113,934 of it – whooshing out into the community at the dizzying rate of a rotunda here ($19,900), a war memorial there ($20,000), $1000 of wrist bands over yonder.

All in one night, in one devastating torrent, coin came spewing out as if Semtex had blown a hole in the wall of Scrooge McDuck’s fabulous bank vault.

The outflow from councillors’ discretionary fund money boxes – each gets $10,000 annually for four years – is usually a carefully husbanded trickle, usually an item at a time, to very worthy causes, closely examined by shire officers, and duly recorded in meeting minutes.

But not this night. It appeared from the gallery to be a mad rush of 24 spends, with complete agreement among councillors. It was a “moved, seconded, carried” agenda item. Over in moments. No discussion. Not a word.

Approval for this monsoonal money maelstrom was explained in the sort of bland bureaucratic language for which the shire is famed and loved: approval was sought “to allocate and disperse Ward Discretionary Fund applications in accordance with the current Ward Discretionary Fund Policy”.

That is, “We’re allowed to spend it, and we’re going to.” But it was hardly “in accordance with” the usual shire practice. This thing was done in a hurry, a big hurry, apparently at the instigation of CEO Michael Kennedy, probably pleased to see councillors putting their funds into projects that might otherwise have been included in the shire budget.

What was the impetus for this haste? Answer: the State Government is banning ward discretionary funds from 30 June because some councillors in Victoria are – gasp! fetch the smelling salts! – misusing them. In the City of Kingston the rules were changed to stop councillors gunnysacking their loot until the last year of their term, to spend in the sacred community cause of being re-elected. It became “use it or lose it” for them.

So, our shire had decided to “proactively and collectively respond” to the state plan before the door slammed shut.

Council Watch has detected no dodgy practices here. Our councillors are consistently without taint or stain.

Their dash for the till was expressed more objectively by council staff: “The [Local Government Amendment (Governance & Conduct) Bill 2014] proposes extensive changes to the Local Government Act 1989 (the Act) to promote good conduct by elected Councillors and to support effective governance by Councils,” they wrote.

“The Bill will change the future administrative arrangements of Ward Discretionary Fund programs across Victoria. Relevant to Ward Discretionary Funds, the Bill will introduce legislation whereby:

– Councils will be prohibited from having a policy where a Councillor is able to allocate or nominate Council funds to a person, organisation or fund; and

– The allocation of public funds by a Council should only be done by Council resolution or in accordance with appropriate delegation procedures.”

So, there it was, for our councillors, too. Use it or lose it. They have used it, and in manifold creative ways. “The projects put forward in this report realise many community and Council capacity building aspirations and strategic (as well as local) outcomes, writes Alison Leighton, acting director – sustainable organisation, the shire’s name for its chief financial officer.

A “robust” procedure ensured proper assessment, allocation and dispersal of the money. And, it appears, great care was taken to ensure the sums were rounded to the dollar – with three exceptions out of 24 projects. Two of these ($859.94 and $3937.06), mesh nicely into an even-dollar result.

All but six projects were costed out at multiples of $500. This makes for tidy bookkeeping, but raises the possibly ignorant query: do most projects the shire undertakes cost out at such neat totals? Of the 10 projects approved for Briars ward, only one (the ($19,800 rotunda) varied from this formula. One sniffed it was a bargain price, possibly $100 off, this week only, like fuel at 151.9 cents a litre.

Do soccer goal posts cost precisely $1000, for example, or does coast guard communications equipment go through the till at exactly $300?

Space prohibits detailed analysis of all 24 cash dispersals. Council Watch recommends those readers with a special interest in the ways of the shire and its councillors go to:
http://www.mornpen.vic.gov.au/Our_Shire/Our_Council/Minutes_Agendas/Council_Minutes_2014/Council_Meetings_2014
Then proceed to page 19 and click on “open attachment” to see how the cash was spent, down to the last cent. Happy reading.

Here is how the ward councillors spent their funds:

– Briars (Anne Shaw, Andrew Dixon, Bev Colomb): $46,900.
– Seawinds (Antonella Celi, David Gibb, Graham Pittock): $30,500.
– Nepean (Hugh Fraser, Tim Rodgers): $9737.
– Cerberus (David Garnock): $6797.
– Watson (Lynn Bowden): $20,000.
– Red Hill (Frank Martin): nil

My favourite is the Rosebud laneway, being “enhanced” to the tune of $16,400 to foil vandals and graffiti scrawlers. Addition of “lighting, street furniture and landscaping” will see an end to that.

 

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