Still no answers, huge new debt, gravel rash and fresh air
THOSE who thought the ousting of Toodyay’s former shire president in recent local government elections would send a wake-up call to most other councillors can think again.
Despite a valiant effort by new East Ward Cr Ben Bell to show the way, it was business as usual last month in the Old Court House council chambers.
Public question time was the usual stonewalling farce.
New Shire President Brian Rayner was on leave, so Deputy President Therese Chitty sat in the hot seat.
She faced a grilling from Toodyay Progress Association Chair Larry Graham about the huge amount of ratepayers’ money – more than half a million dollars (10 per cent of annual shire rates) – squandered on suing former shire CEO Graham Merrick and former shire president Charlie Wroth.
Cr Chitty was Shire Deputy President for much of that time, a councillor for the rest of it and stuck to her former president’s official line of keeping ratepayers in the dark.
She also declined to comment on whether the shire – as revealed in the WA Supreme Court last year – breached local government law by failing to follow correct procedure before launching its disastrous court case.
Mr Graham then asked why the shire had failed to comply with WA Freedom of Information law and who had authorised a written request for the public release of details about lawyers’ costs to be delayed until after the October shire elections in case it influenced how local people voted.
Cr Chitty said – after consulting CEO Stan Scott – that the questions would be taken “on notice” and answered at the next council meeting on Tuesday December 19.
Mr Scott said a shire document listing council payments to lawyers was submitted to the Freedom of Information Commissioner but it was neither “complete or accurate”.
This startling revelation begs the question: does anyone at the shire actually know how much ratepayers’ money was spent on this legal debacle, and when will those responsible for it be held to account?
New Crs Bell and Di Granger (Central Ward) have a hell of job in front of them to restore confidence, reason and sanity in a council that appears to remain hamstrung by a failed legacy of secrecy and obfuscation.
Cr Bell was the Lone Ranger in arguing against a plan to allow a big new quarry on a former extraction site in Lover’s Lane, Toodyay.
The 53ha site is overlooked by a nearby hilltop rural residential subdivision with panoramic views west and south.
The nearby quarry will operate six days a week (including Saturdays) from 6am to 5pm and include blasting operations and a crushing plant while processing up to 140,000 tonnes of sand, gravel and stone each year.
The operation will also add 800 heavy trucks a year to Toodyay Road – one of the State’s worst for serious traffic accidents.
Planning and Development Manager Graeme Bissett reported to the meeting that quarrying Toodyay Stone would “provide recognition for Toodyay and the Shire of Toodyay”.
However, Cr Bell backed local residents’ objections and said he could see “no benefit in it at all for Toodyay”.
“There’s no jobs and it interferes with tourism,” he said.
“All I can see is a downside for people who live nearby.”
Mr Scott agreed with Cr Bell that “there was very little benefit for Toodyay” but said if councillors rejected it, applicant SSSA (WA) Pty Ltd could appeal to the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT), which would cost the shire more in legal fees to defend.
“So your suggestion is to grant things rather than go to SAT?” Cr Bell asked.
“It’s a large-scale sand and gravel operation within 500 metres of houses – I struggle to understand how this brings no benefit to the community and yet we are going to allow it.”
Mr Scott said the SAT was “generally applicant friendly” and that shire refusal could be overturned on review.
The quarry was approved 6-2, with Crs Bell and Paula Greenway (West Ward) against, and Cr Rayner absent.
Taj Mahal: Following years of empty talk and failure to listen to ratepayers, councillors have finally woken up to the fact the town’s lack of a public swimming pool is a serious community issue that demands urgent action.
However, instead of building a modest $4.7 million pool that the shire could easily afford, most councillors continue to be fixated with a $23 million ‘Taj Mahal’ multi-sports and recreation complex that will plunge us $8 million further into debt and cost ratepayers more than $500,000 a year to repay over the next 20 years.
Given the shire’s current near-deficit budget, the new borrowing represents at least a 10 per cent rates hike until 2037, by which time most of the shire’s ageing population will be pushing up daisies, or close to it.
This is despite a report tabled at last month’s council meeting that the project’s scope, specifications and cost-control issues “could result in a major financial risk”.
When asked by Cr Bell if ratepayers knew that their shire was about to commit them to an $8 million loan, Mr Scott replied “yes, it has been advertised”, but failed to say how or when – and, of course, nobody asked.
It certainly wasn’t mentioned in the shire’s latest six-page newsletter, which includes a whole page on the apparently more pressing issue of skeleton weed and tomato bugs.
Cr Bell said borrowing $8 million to help pay for the whole project “causes me concern”.
“We can get a $4.7 million pool done quickly – I’ve got no problems with that – but the $23 million looks burdensome, we can’t afford it,” he said.
Cr Sally Craddock said she too was “seriously troubled” by the $8 million loan.
The plan is to build new facilities for football, cricket, hockey, soccer, rugby, tennis, netball and basketball, a function centre for 200 people and a 25-metre unheated outdoor pool that will open only in summer.
Cr Chitty said she would “like to see us committed to getting this pool built” but added that “sporting facilities are very poor – we need new facilities in Toodyay”.
Councillors voted 6-2 (Crs Bell and Craddock against) to borrow $8 million for the project, dependent on the shire getting $9 million from the Federal Government (after at least two earlier failed attempts).
Mr Scott said if there was no federal money “we will proceed with the pool” anyway.
What will it take for councillors to realise that a pool should come first and everything else after – if ratepayers can afford it?
Buried in the small print was a plan for the new sports ground to be used for community events such as the annual Toodyay Agricultural Show.
Such a move – which is likely to be opposed by Toodyay Agricultural Society – will enable the shire to subdivide and sell the current 164-year-old showground, which includes a historic grandstand, exhibition hall, animal and produce display sheds and other facilities.
This is all about selling off WA’s second oldest showground to pay off shire debt – don’t be surprised if the destruction of priceless local heritage becomes the cost of building a new sports centre, or again puts building a pool on the back burner.
It was a breath of fresh air when Cr Bell introduced two new motions on notice at the end of the meeting.
One was to require the CEO to compare Toodyay’s annual rates with those levied by other similar WA shires, presumably as a precursor to honouring Cr Bell’s election pledge to review shire rates.
His other motion sought to compare Toodyay’s local laws for sand, rock and gravel quarries with extractive industry local laws in other shires.
Both passed 8-0 despite Mr Scott’s suggestion that councillors could do their own rates research online.
“The risk with any analysis is that it may be superficial and not considered in the context of the needs of local government, or not comparing like with like,” Mr Scott wrote.
He also said a balanced budget model used for distributing federal funds to local government “makes for interesting reading for those who enjoy numbers”.
Mr Scott said he supported both motions, which was a curious thing to say for a shire employee who doesn’t have a vote and whose job it is to do what council tells him to do.
We trust his rates analysis will not be “superficial” or lack “context”, which is probably why he was asked to do it in the first place, and we expect the result to “make for interesting reading” for all ratepayers, not just “those who enjoy numbers”.
And lastly a positive note.
The shire’s prime mover – the vehicle, not Mr Scott – is terminally ill and needs replacement.
The choice was whether to buy a new one for $200,000 or to lease.
Works and Services Manager Scott Patterson acquitted himself extremely well when asked to explain the pros and cons – leasing was less risky for about the same price, and $30,000 cheaper in the current financial year, he said.
Mr Patterson appears totally across his job and showed he is a great asset to the shire.
Councillors voted 6-2 to lease, with Crs Rob Welburn and Eric Twine against.