Shire shake-up to continue in 2015

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NEXT year could be the most lively and productive year Mornington Peninsula Shire has had in a long time. A new chief executive officer, Carl Cowie, and councillors appearing to bury their differences are welcome developments.

Here are a few items, dealt with briefly, for councillors and officers to consider over the summer break. The subjects can be classed as boring but important: no soaring visions, just matters of tidy housekeeping. An astonishing amount has already been accomplished but there’s more to be done.

Rates
They have been going up at well over the rate of inflation, more than doubling in the past decade or so, well ahead of the local government average – and rising faster than the shire’s own goal, of inflation plus two per cent.

Continuation of this trend could eventually turn the peninsula from a mix of ages, occupations and incomes into a wealthy enclave, with long-time residents forced to sell up and move or potential new settlers unable to buy into even more modestly priced areas.

Debt
It is too high, with little sign it is being brought under control. Arguments that the shire is well placed to handle $30-40 million or so of debt do not cut much ice with ratepayers. Higher levels of government do not advance this argument: they shout their successes in balancing budgets.

However, debt is not bad (think mortgage and car loan) but thrift is a splendid and logical if unfashionable concept in this credit card era. Some readers will recall methodically putting pennies aside for the new fridge or TV and savouring the purchase all the more for enduring the wait.

Those inflicted with Hamlet in their school years will recall the excellent advice a young man heading for Paris got from his wise father: borrowing “dulls the edge of husbandry”, Polonius told Laertes, and my father told me, then had to explain it on account of my tender years.

Infrastructure
The shire has long boasted that it has closed the infrastructure gap. Good work has been done in this area, but much more is needed. Ask sports clubs whose pavilions and toilets need urgent repairs.

Observe the state of some shire roads. The low-temperature road making and repair technique introduced some years ago was not a success, melting even on mid-temperature days and requiring follow-up visits. Added to this is the vast increase in visitor numbers, which has added to road wear and tear, as it has on the requirement for more and better tourist infrastructure.

Visitors and locals are increasingly turning to four-wheel drive vehicles, enormous things that chew up tarmac. One friend who complained he could not get his vehicle in and out of his property without damaging the road was advised by a shire officer not to turn the steering wheel as he entered and exited.

Enforcement
A common community complaint is that permits for buildings and shire by-laws are often not enforced, or are enforced rarely or narrowly. Parking officers are rarely seen away from busy shopping centres and other places which provide a good return to the shire. Meanwhile, villages and many tourist attractions – wineries and the like – can breach their permit conditions, especially those related to patron numbers and parking, with impunity.

Spending
Local government is victim to regular state and federal government cost shifting. Cr David Gibb has been consistent over the years in opposing state attempts to get its hands into ratepayers’ pockets, most recently (and sadly unsuccessfully) over a shire contribution to the Mornington harbour plan.

The shire has had, in the minds of many, an entrepreneurial approach to spending, with the vast and unending piggy bank of ratepayers’ funds to draw on. One recalls the state request for $250,000 to investigate a ferry linking the peninsula with Phillip Island. It didn’t eventuate, as I recall, probably because it was not economically viable and the concern with the effect on Cowes beach.

Community relations
The shire gets a mixed scorecard for its public interface. It does some things very well indeed – if they are good news matters. For example, when a photo is needed for Peninsula Wide (nice looking revamped spring edition, by the way) it’s all stops out.

When the shire is challenged to release information to the public it is a different matter. Journalists, generally regarded as a feral species, find themselves controlled trying to access even non-controversial shire information.

This control has tightened over the past few years as it applies to ordinary citizens. The rules for questions to council meetings has been restricted to two questions, each of 50 words or less and no follow-up questions. And questioners must declare the questions are their own work. One might argue this borders on paranoia. Other municipalities allow follow-up questions and place no word limits on questions. Imagine! A ratepayer dialogue with councillors and staff in council meetings.

Then, on a rather higher plane, is the recent and dramatic loosening-up of some of the shire secrecy. “Secret” meetings have already been abolished, due in part to the deep respect for openness ingrained into two councillors over their years in the courts – retired judge Tim Wood and barrister Hugh Fraser. This trend should, and almost certainly will, continue.

Please feel free to contribute to this list, to The News or to the shire, or both. As a lady once said in a television advertisement: “It’s your money, Ralph.”

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