Biosphere faces cash crisis

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WITHOUT an urgent injection of funds the Western Port Biosphere could collapse within two months.

Dire financial circumstances being faced by the biosphere were outlined last week at an extraordinary general meeting which gave the board of directors the power to wind up the “company” if money is not found by the end of this month, February.

With only four of the five “partner” municipalities contributing towards its annual income the biosphere has been forced to use its cash reserves to make up the shortfall.

Executive officer Cecelia Witton told the Tuesday 31 January meeting that the biosphere looked like being “insolvent sometime in April”.

“Depending on the outcome of current negotiations, and with confirmed commitments for $7000 and a possible additional $5000, this would still leave $8000 short … for the remainder of the year,” Ms Witton said.

Since its inception 12 years ago, annual grants have been made to the biosphere by Mornington Peninsula Shire, Bass Coast, Cardinia and Casey, but the withdrawal of funding by Frankston Council has left it $20,000 a year short for several years.

The Mornington Peninsula and Western Port Biosphere Reserve (operating as Western Port Biosphere) is run from an office in Salmon St, Hastings, and its latest annual report shows $31,500 in “occupancy expenses” and $86,000 “employee benefits” among its $600,000 yearly running costs.

Chair of the biosphere board Duncan Malcolm, in the October 2016 annual report, hoped Frankston’s withdrawal of financial support temporary and thanked the four remaining municipalities for “honouring … their initial pledge”.

Mr Malcolm’s concerns about finances were echoed in the same report by Ms Witton who saw strengthening the biosphere’s financial position as its most pressing challenge.

“Your directors and staff are working hard to get additional support in this area, without success in this endeavour, our future is not assured,” Ms Witton said.

Three months later finances are worse and the board now has permission to “start the voluntarily wind up of the company if the board decides that such action become necessary”.

In a message emailed to members and posted on the biosphere’s website after last week’s meeting Ms Witton said there had “seemed to be some confusion during the meeting, about the purpose of the meeting and of the vote” (which gave the wind up powers to the board).

“Rest assured that we are doing everything in our power to find the extra funds required and to put in place long term agreements with the councils and others in order to provide surety for the future of the biosphere and we are confident of doing so,” Ms Witton stated.

“Given the position of the Biosphere the board wished to call this meeting to make the members aware of our position and to ask the members to empower them to make any tough decisions that need to be made and to let the members know of the process moving forward.”

Ms Witton said the board was “working on gaining the required funding from numerous sources” as well as seeking a “multi-year” memorandum of understanding with the councils “and new councillors”.

The 2142 square-kilometre Mornington Peninsula and Western Port Biosphere Reserve – one of 14 in Australia – includes five local government areas and French Island.

Listed under the UNESCO’s man and the biosphere program, it includes national and marine parks, rural agriculture and urban-growth areas.

Western Port is also listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International significance.

Biospheres are described as being “sites of excellence that seek to reconcile conservation of biological and cultural diversity and economic and social development through partnerships between people and nature”.

Although they have no statutory powers biospheres are seen as being “ideal learning sites to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to sustainable development and conservation on a regional scale”.

The Western Port Biosphere says it “works with the community to create a better future for the Western Port Biosphere Reserve—environmentally, socially and economically. We do this through research, education, community engagement, partnerships and on-ground conservation efforts”.

Projects it has undertaken include Growing connections (habitat corridors); Water stewardship; Protecting Ramsar values; Watson Creek, Somerville; and the Southern brown bandicoot recovery program.

First published in the Western Port News – 7 February 2017

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