City of Port Phillip does it yet again

Sometimes the City of Port Phillip comes up with things which might as well be lifted direct from Yes Prime Minister or The Hollowmen.

It’s latest stunt is a Cost Review Program for 2022 for which the PPurpose (sic) is to outline the outcomes of the Cost Review Program 2022 to be considered as part of the development and consultation of the Draft Budget 2023/24.

The executive summary says that “a detailed financial review is undertaken to identify ongoing cost reductions that would enable Council to consider adopting a rates increased at a level below the rates cap down to no rate increases in 2023-24. This process will be referred to as the ‘Cost Review 2022’.”

This is followed by the usual bureaucratic gobbledygook – purpose, outputs, parameters, key considerations, three phase approach, deep dives, a robust and comprehensive approach over eight areas. This goes on for eight pages.

Councillors got involved in some workshops and the Council is “constantly looking for opportunities to create efficiency savings” so far claiming about $2.6 million worth when Council is facing $54 million facing a funding deficit which will be added to a funding deficit of $163 million over 10 years.

Efficiency savings are oft claimed as magic bullets by bureaucrats, but the benefits rarely eventuate and by that time the proponents have moved on to some other organisation or department.

Nevertheless, the first place you would imagine the Council addressing is the bureaucracy of ‘team leaders’ with a variety of incomprehensible titles and who shift jobs and titles within the Council often enough to ensure no one knows what they are doing and no continuity is achieved. At the most basic level if you ring the Council about a problem you might get someone helpful but next time you ring they will probably have moved onto some new position.

These problems are made worse by the political divisions with the Council itself. Four of the Councillors were elected on the basis of reducing rates. Most of those own houses worth many millions of dollars- some approaching Sydney property prices. The notion that the rich should pay more than the less well-off is anathema to them.

One of these councillors also went down in Australian municipal history by campaigning on the theme of making Port Phillip the Monaco of Australia. Whether this meant casinos and high-rise luxury apartments and our very own monarchy was a bit unclear. She probably, given her stance on rates, meant we should copy their (no) tax regime.

Four are progressives whether from the ALP or the Greens and one is actually independent and was elected Mayor. Given the property prices in the City they too probably pay high rates on very valuable properties although they are not complaining about paying rates for a city with beachfront properties, gardens and other good facilities.

But to get back to the cost review. It successfully identified $87,000 in savings with more promised. Unlike Monaco which has a thriving arts scene – even if some of the galleries have few works selling for less than a few million – the cost review targeted the Cultural Development Fund slashing funding for artistic/creative projects.

While not making any commitments the Council is also considering divesting part of its art collection. This is not surprising given that Council, when offered the donation of a very valuable Boyd of Port Phillip Bay, it passed on the offer and another Council grabbed it.

Other possible initiatives are cutting backs on funding for the local EcoCentre (a great idea in a city facing raising sea levels) and library cutbacks. After all if residents want access to books why can’t they go out and buy them, bind them in leather covers and put them on antique bookshelves.

In a classic bit of bureaucratese it will also: “Re-imagine Grants Program – while not continuing with the program the funding program will be re-purposed within the Economic Development Program to support business recovery.”

So business will get handouts while community organisations and the arts community face major cutbacks.

This sounds like a bit of a nonsense given the Council’s recent adoption of a Creative and Prosperous City Strategy emphasising: dynamic and distinctive precincts and places, attracting businesses; making arts, culture and creative expression a part of everyday life; and creating a city where community, creativity and businesses are connected and engaged.

In the TV series A Very Peculiar Practice a writer hired by a university keeps coming up with ideas for a book only to discover the university has done something even more outlandish than his latest plot idea.  If they ever want a municipal remake the producers could use City of Port Phillip as the plot location.

…..and by the way. The Council employed temporary agency staff at a cost of some $70,000 to achieve the $87,000 cost reduction.

The Council now promises to search for more cost savings. The question, on the basis of its record so far, is whether rates will have to go up rather than down to fund the cost saving staff’s work.